Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs

From Manfred Gerstenfeld's
Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss? (2005)

French History and Current Attitudes to Israel

An interview with Freddy Eytan

The first Israeli ambassador to Mauritania, Freddy Eytan, was stationed in Paris in the 1970s as an Israeli diplomat and in the 1980s as a journalist. He has observed French Middle Eastern policies over a long period. In 1986 he published David and Marianne: France, Israel, and the Jews.1 Recently he authored: The Double Game,2 analyzing the policy of French President Jacques Chirac in the Middle East since 1974. In it he reflects on some major problems France has created in recent decades for Israel and the Jews, and sometimes for both simultaneously.

When discussing France's current policies, Eytan says that to gain a perspective one has to look back several decades. "In 1956, before and during the Suez Campaign, France - with its aim of reestablishing control over the Suez Canal - had a major interest in joint military action with Israel. In the Algerian War, France was confronting the FLN national independence movement. The French government thought cooperation with Israel would be helpful on both fronts. France thus sold weapons to Israel and helped Israel establish its atomic reactor.

"During the years 1956-1962 all Arab countries, with the exception of Lebanon, severed diplomatic relations with France. The Algerian War ended in 1962 with the Evian agreements, resulting in Algeria's independence. After its policy change in 1967, France began to say Israel was a colonial state since it had conquered territories. This masked France's true political motives. It had understood the importance of the Arab oil reserves and sought ways to improve its relations with the Arab states. The political calculation was not difficult: there are twenty-one Arab states and only one Jewish one.

"In 1967, during and after the Six Day War, France reversed its policy toward Israel radically. Before, France had been a supporter of the Jewish state; after the war it increasingly opposed Israel on crucial matters. It is difficult to understand why General De Gaulle imposed a weapons embargo on Israel in June 1967 at the very moment when the Israelis were facing death. Had the general a memory breakdown concerning the dark years of French history in the Second World War?

"French Mirage planes were used against Israel during the Yom Kippur war as a result of the country's pro-Arab policy. These planes, originally destined for Israel, were sold to Libya and then transferred to Egypt. With this lifting of the embargo, the mask fell and France's double game appeared.

"Until the 1970s there was substantial French cultural influence in Israel. Many French songs were translated into Hebrew. France even had a cultural center in Jerusalem. It was closed in 1970 despite the many French speakers in Israel. Until today, Israel, despite its desire to become a member of the Association of Francophone Countries has not succeeded in this because of Arab opposition."

Doubtful Advantages

"After the French embargo, the United States became Israel's major weapons supplier and its most loyal ally. Since then, France has been kept outside the crucial decisions in the Middle East. Paris missed historic opportunities on almost every occasion."

Eytan wonders: "Has France's often anti-Israeli policy been effective? Has it given the country an advantage in the Arab world? This is very doubtful. From the energy crisis in 1974 until the Iraq war of today in which French hostages have been taken, there are many examples that it has not. History proves that France's Arab politics, developed by the Gaullist Foreign Minister Michel Jobert, have been a major failure.

"France still has the illusion that it is a great power, but it is not. Its influence has been reduced compared to the Americans, who, since the Soviet Union's collapse, have become the world's sole masters. Only a coherent and balanced Europeans policy - including France - can restore its credibility in the Middle East and offer the Europeans the role that befits them."

Going Back to the Dreyfus Affair

Eytan notes: "On some issues, such as the roots of today's extreme right-wing movements, one has to go back even further in time if one wishes to understand current attitudes toward Israel. The Dreyfus affair was a watershed event in French history with a long-lasting influence. One of its consequences was the founding of anti-Semitic movements such as Action Française Ligue and Action Directe.

"These and other similar movements also had a profound impact beyond the French borders on fascists such as Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal. They influenced Mussolini in some aspects of a combined Catholic, monarchic, fascist worldview. The adherents of the French right-wing movements were ambivalent toward the Vichy government during the war. On the one hand, Petain was France's national hero of the First World War; on the other hand, he collaborated with the Nazis. Their attitudes varied in time.

"In 1945, these extreme right-wing anti-Semitic movements suffered a major defeat. The post-war French government made an effort to eliminate their influence. Many collaborators were brought to justice. There was popular justice too. One of the best-known examples was the cutting of the hair of women who had had affairs with Germans."

The French Right since the End of Colonialism

"At that time, France was still a colonial power. This greatly continued to influence its foreign policy. It ruled Indochina and large parts of North Africa. Algeria was still an overseas part of France. This situation gradually gave the French extreme right new opportunities to raise its head. After the country's defeat by the Vietnamese in Dien Bien Phu in 1957, and the independence of Algeria in 1962, right-wing movements developed that wanted to exact their revenge on the French government. De Gaulle became their prime target. Before that they had aimed at Jewish Prime Minister Pierre Mendes France, in view of his policies concerning Tunisian independence and the Indochina War.

"When French colonial history ended, the extreme right-wing movements started taking an interest in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Around the same time, left-wing and anarchist movements discovered the Palestinians. The Bader-Meinhoff terrorists of the Red Army Fraction in Germany are a typical example. They engaged physically in a fight that was not theirs. The difference between right-wing and left-wing extremists' attitudes toward Israel became increasingly blurred.

"Toward the end of the 1970s, Jean-Marie Le Pen's right-wing National Front movement became institutionalized. France maintained a liberal policy and did not disband it. Later, the National Front entered the European Parliament. In this way the electorate legitimized Le Pen. The National Front did not succeed in staying in the French parliament because of the high hurdles of the district electoral system."

Rewriting French History

"Highly problematic efforts to rewrite French war history started almost immediately after the war. The independent French Vichy government and not the Germans had taken the initial anti-Jewish measures. This government had come to power legally. In this, Vichy France differed from the countries occupied by the Germans. It collaborated with the Nazis. Its policemen, for instance, took a major part in the persecution of the Jews.

"Holocaust denial also raised its head soon after the war. The Jews protested but the French government did not care. The international Holocaust denial movements of the extreme right started to meet, and also collaborated in taking anti-Israeli positions. Le Pen made his perverse statement that the Holocaust is a small part of war history.

"The Communists were on the other side of the political spectrum. Many Jews had fought in their ranks during the Resistance in the Second World War. The party followed Soviet policy and thus became increasingly anti-Israeli. This attitude lasted after the disbandment of the Soviet Union. France today is one of the few Western countries that still has a substantial Communist party. They have turned Israel into their scapegoat."

Eytan adds that the French mainstream has often been a pioneer against Israeli interests. "France's Foreign Minister Sauvagnargues, in 1974, was the first Western official who met Yasser Arafat in Beirut. A few months later the PLO was admitted to the UN with observer status. The Palestinians triumphed, and their leader Yasser Arafat entered the New York glass palace with the gesture of a winning boxer and a weapon on his hip. Israel's number-one enemy was acclaimed by the great majority of the world's states thanks to the help of France. The following year, France was the first European country to permit the PLO to open a diplomatic office on its soil.

"In January 1976, Louis de Guiringaud, then France's ambassador to the United Nations, voted for a motion giving the Palestinian people the right to create an independent state in Palestine. Without the American veto, this motion would have been adopted."

Reality is Irrelevant

Eytan observes that the Europeans, and the French in particular, are characterized by a Cartesian approach. "They invent abstract arguments and thereafter manipulate them irrespective of the reality. As far as Israel is concerned this often leads to absurd conclusions. The anti-Israeli trend was only halted for some time when a murderous bomb attack took place at the Paris Rue Copernic Synagogue in October 1980. To this day it remains unclear whether the PLO or the extreme right was behind it.

"France's Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, strongly condemned the attack. Mitterrand, who could be considered a bourgeois Socialist, had a very ambivalent personality. During his presidency from 1981 to 1995, he did not accept the French Republic's responsibility for the misdeeds of its Vichy predecessor. He also maintained a close relationship with a leading war criminal, René Bousquet. This was made public only in 1994, two years before his death, in a book by Pierre Péan.3 Even those Jews close to the president, who knew this, kept silent.

"During the Lebanon War, Mitterrand irritated many by comparing the actions of the Israeli army with the atrocities committed by the Nazis in Oradour-sur-Glane, close to the city of Limoges on Saturday, 10 June 1944. On that day 200 S.S troops arrived in this quiet village and assembled the population. The men were taken into the church and killed. The Germans burnt the village down, killing 642 locals. It has never been rebuilt.

"However, in 1982 Mitterrand was the first French president to visit Israel. No French head of state had been in the Holy Land since King Saint Louis in 1250."

Socialist Romantics Preaching Moralism

"By 1974, Mitterrand had already met Arafat in Cairo at a meeting of the Socialist International. The Socialists' position stems from a romantic worldview. They favor national movements. They also supported Che Guevara at a certain time. Many French intellectuals are Socialist, or left of that.

"The Socialist foreign ministers Claude Cheysson and Roland Dumas, and later to some extent also Hubert Védrine, had both a militant and a romantic attitude toward the Palestinian problem. In their discussions with the Israeli leaders they often preached moralism. Dumas was the lawyer who in Jerusalem defended the Catholic Bishop Georges Hilarion Cappucci. The latter had transported weapons and munitions for the Palestinians in his diplomatic car.

"Sometimes France's higher state interests clash with legal considerations and a way around the latter has to be found. A typical example occurred in 1976 when France arrested the Palestinian terrorist Abu Daoud, who was responsible for the murder of eleven Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The French secret services wanted to put him in jail. Israel and Germany requested his extradition.

"The French government did not consider this to be in their 'higher state interest.' Dumas was Abu Daoud's lawyer. The latter was brought before a judge who freed him. At that time, judges were not independent. This behaviour borders on the absurd. If it was in France's interest to free Abu Daoud, they should not have arrested him. Once they did they should have brought him to trial. This teaches again that morality doesn't function in international relations while the French double play works well."

Chirac's Homage to Arafat

"After 1995, Yasser Arafat was often the guest of honor at Chirac's palace in Paris. Chirac was the first head of state to offer Arafat treatment in exile when he became terminally ill. No Arab leader had either the courage or the desire to do so publicly. Chirac remained loyal to Arafat until his death.

"After Arafat's death, Chirac went far beyond the requirements of protocol. It would be difficult to find in modern times another head of a democratic country who paid such homage to a warrior chief of a virtual state.

"On the tarmac of the airforce base of Villacoublay, Arafat's coffin was covered by the Palestinian flag and carried by eight French soldiers to the sound of Chopin's 'March of the Dead.' Three companies of the Republican Guard paid their honors. The military band played the Palestinian national hymn and the 'Marseillaise.' French and Palestinian flags were blowing in the wind when an A309 airbus of the airforce flew Arafat's remains to Cairo. It was escorted by another French plane with the foreign minister on board. This procedure went beyond any good sense.

"On 11 November, the day that Jacques Chirac bowed before Arafat's remains, France solemnly remembered the armistice of the First World War, in which eight million people died. When watching this major homage of France to Arafat, one could ask on what field of honor this so-called Palestinian hero had fallen? The only thing lacking was for the president of the French Republic to confer on Arafat the Legion of Honor."

Chirac's Double Play

"Chirac is also a master of duplicity. In July 1995, fifty years after the war, as newly elected French president, he finally admitted that France had to assume the responsibility for the fate of the Jews under Vichy. The French government also established a commission of inquiry into the spoliation of the Jews by the occupying forces and the Vichy authorities. This led later to a restitution process.

"Chirac had been mayor of Paris for seventeen years, and in this capacity had many contacts with the Jewish community. The municipality building is very close to the old Jewish quarters in the Marais. He had also many Jewish advisers. Lubavitch Rabbi Yosef Pewzner is particularly close to him. Chirac came to Israel in 1988 as prime minister in what was a relatively successful visit. His visit as president in 1996, however, was a fiasco. He refused to speak to the members of the Knesset and rejected the protection of Israeli security in his visit to East Jerusalem.

"France, like most Western countries, still considers Jerusalem an entity separate from Israel. European embassies are in Tel Aviv, even though the special administration for Jerusalem has never been applied by the United Nations. It is a unique case in the world that foreign states decide to choose the capital of a country. It is also hypocritical because their ambassadors come up from Tel Aviv to present their letters of credence to the president in Jerusalem and frequently participate in Knesset meetings.

"The French Foreign Ministry addresses its cables to the government in Tel Aviv. Also, part of the French media use this locution. One day Menachem Begin said to me: 'What would happen if in future we addressed our letters to the government in Vichy?'"

Israel: A Parenthesis?

Eytan refers to another issue that affects the views of many Frenchmen on the Middle East: "The Arabs have promoted the idea that Israel is a parenthesis in Middle Eastern history like the Crusaders were. Their government of Jerusalem lasted from 1099 to 1290, only two centuries. This is a cynical way of thinking and this repulsive concept is also influential among French government circles.

"Several circles in France have adopted the idea that Israel is not sustainable as a Zionist state or at all, even if it exists another fifty or a hundred years. This idea was partly instrumental in the major wave of anti-Semitism that erupted in France on the heels of the new Palestinian uprising of autumn 2000.

"Since the outbreak of the Intifada, the hatred toward Israel has come to the fore in French society mainly among the extreme right-wing circles and the antiglobalists. In France one finds a new connivance between extreme left-wing intellectuals and radical Muslim movements to delegitimize Israel's existence. Some militants preach the negation of the Zionist state of Israel in the name of human rights and better understanding between nations. Strangely enough, a fascist philosophy of the extreme right of the 19th century returns in a supposedly intellectual mutation among the antiglobalists. The black sheep is the same: yesterday, the Jew, today, the Israeli.

"Major sources of hatred can be found in the North African immigrant community. There are also more and more intellectuals of North African origin who play a role in the anti-Israeli incitement. France, a liberal country, has made the strategic mistake of letting in many hundreds of thousands of foreign workers without simultaneously considering what actions to take - in particular through education - to integrate them.

"Nor did France say to the immigrants: 'You enter our country upon certain conditions. You are coming to a secular state; staying here requires a certain code of behavior.' Socialist governments were particularly liberal in their immigration policies. This has led to France now being home to Europe's largest Muslim community - about six million. Its radical elements are mainly responsible for the fact that France leads Europe as far as violent anti-Semitic acts are concerned. Also French mosques play a major role in the incitement. Many imams are Iranian Shiites."

Assisting Khomeini

Eytan adds: "In the past France's policies have hurt the West, and in particular Israel and the Jewish people, in several other ways. It bears major responsibilities for the development of radical Islam. President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing had invited the Shah of Iran as his first official foreign guest, in view of France's interest in Iranian oil. In 1978, Giscard and his Interior Minister Michel Poniatowski foresaw the collapse of the Shah's government, which would damage France's commercial interests.

"The proposal was then raised to bring the Ayatollah Khomeini to Algeria. Before, he had been chased from one place to the other. The DST, the French secret service, opposed his entry but Giscard overruled them and granted Khomeini political asylum in France. He stayed in Neauphle le Chateau near Paris. From there, he distributed cassettes to Iran inciting against democracy, peace in the Middle East, the Jews and Israelis. He also called for jihad, a violent holy war. The PLO distributed Khomeini's cassettes to Iran. When the American embassy in Teheran was attacked in November 1979, PLO members were among the perpetrators. Yasser Arafat was the first official guest in Teheran. He received a popular welcome as a great hero for supporting the Islamic revolution.

"Today, we know that Khomeini's concepts of the Islamic Republic have led to a major expansion of militant Islam. Both Hizbollah and Al Qaeda have their origins in the revolutionary ideas developed in Khomeini's Iran. The violent speeches in the Iranian mosques and international Islamist terror would not have developed without Khomeini's stay in France and the publicity he received there. Without Giscard's hospitality, Khomeini would not have been able to take power in Iran and develop an infrastructure for international propaganda and terrorism."

Eytan observes that France also played a major, dubious role in the Iraq-Iran War. "There were two schools in France: the pro-Iranian and the pro-Iraqi one. The French decided to increasingly support the Iraqi side, while simultaneously supplying the Iranians. It was a war prolonged by French supplies in which a million people were killed.

"In 1974 the French sold their most modern aircraft, the Mirage 2000, to Saddam Hussein. Later they supplied the Osirak nuclear reactor near Baghdad, which Israel destroyed in 1981. The present conflict between the United States and France is an offshoot of the French pro-Iraqi policy in the Middle East. It will continue because, apart from its political interests, France has an exceedingly legalistic attitude toward all problems including relations between countries. Diplomats realize this more than others because it comes up in almost every conversation. This is very different from the American attitude."

A Legalistic Attitude

"This legalistic attitude also expresses itself with respect to the Palestinians. Michel Barnier, who became French foreign minister in 2004, went to visit Arafat in July because the French considered him the elected chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

"Only four months later, Barnier visited Israel and stayed three days there, but did not succeed in dissipating the misunderstandings between the two countries.

"In 2003, Chirac refused to receive Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Paris. He has not encouraged him regarding the Gaza disengagement plan. Chirac made a similar mistake to the one by Giscard d'Estaing, who in 1977 did not applaud Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's historic visit to Jerusalem. Since then, Chirac has approved Sharon's plan, but says that it doesn't go far enough. He stresses that Israel must withdraw from all Palestinians territories including East Jerusalem."

The Camp David Negotiations

"France played also an obscure role in the 2000 Camp David 2 negotiations. There is an Israeli version originating from several advisers of Ehud Barak, which claims that Chirac prompted Arafat to decline the Camp David 2 agreement. The French deny this, claiming to the contrary that they did their best to convince Arafat to sign.

"However, to the outside observer, it seemed Chirac did everything he could to hamper the negotiation process. He wanted to institute a commission of inquiry on Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount and the subsequent events there. This led to major friction with Israel.

"Immediately after Camp David 2, Chirac invited U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Israeli Prime Minister Barak, and Arafat. He wanted them to sign the agreement in France. This would have been possible only if Chirac, who was extremely impulsive, had taken a more balanced position between the parties. He was unwilling, however, to admit that the Israelis had made almost all the concessions.

"France has nothing concrete to contribute to a Middle East peace agreement. It is part of the European Union yet still wants to act independently. Besides that, despite the firm declarations of the French government, the number of violent anti-Semitic incidents in France increased in 2004. In view of all that has happened, Israel increasingly views France as unfit to be a broker in the Middle East."

Eytan concludes: "Europe's colonial history is the source of its frequent obsessions with trying to solve Middle Eastern problems. That history is also behind Europe's double standards and double play. I believe that one of the Americans' great advantages in the negotiations is that their history is not burdened with the major anti-Semitism that has manifested itself for such a long time in Europe."

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1. Freddy Eytan, David et Marianne. La France, les Juifs et Israël: la raison et la passion (Paris: Alain Moreau, 1986). [French]

2. Freddy Eytan, Double Jeu (Paris : Jean Picollec, 2004). [French]

3. Pierre Péan, Une Jeunesse Française: François Mitterand (Paris: Fayard, 1994). (French)

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Freddy Eytan studied at Tel Aviv University and at Université de Droit in Paris. He has been a journalist, a diplomat, and taught at the Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan University. Eytan was Israel's first ambassador to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania. He has written numerous books and articles on the Arab-Israeli conflict and French policy in the Middle East. Today, he is head of the Israel-Europe project at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.