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France’s Fascination with Israel and Palestine

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This article was originally published by the European Council on Foreign Relations on 21 July, 2014.

Whatever its leaders say, France is once again caught up in the latest spiral of violence involving Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East. This was made clear by the clashes that took place between protesters and the police on 19-20 July 2014 in Paris and Sarcelles after pro-Palestinian marches were banned. Since the confrontation resumed and Israel launched its Protective Edge offensive on 8 July against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, hundreds of Palestinians have been killed. Meanwhile, the Élysée has striven, against the odds, to prevent the conflict from being imported into France, in spite of the visibility of the issue and the fact that it is explosive enough to divide the French more than any other regional or global crisis. Since early July, peaceful marches and militant demonstrations – some pro-Palestinian, some pro-Israeli – have each been attended by thousands of people.

What is behind this enduring French passion for a conflict that is on the face of it distant, foreign, and complex? What domestic tensions and fractures does it really reflect?

Historical preoccupation

The use of the word “imported” may not be apposite. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been transposed onto French society for a long time and viewpoints on both sides of the issue have become increasingly polarised. The deeply entrenched nature of the issue recalls earlier episodes of the country’s history, which caused similar strong reactions and also divided society deeply, such as the Dreyfus Affair and Vichy France’s collaboration with Nazi Germany.

However, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has not always been so resonant in France. From the early years after Palestine’s partition in 1947 and the creation of the state of Israel until the Six-Day War in 1967, the Palestinian cause was rarely part of France’s national debate. It was essentially a concern for the Arab world. The French mainly focused on and supported the Zionist project. Most French people backed Israel during the 1967 war, still remembering the Holocaust, the Suez campaign in 1956 at a time of decolonisation, and the Algerian war of independence with its resultant repatriation of thousands of Pieds-Noirs (French citizens formerly established in North African colonies).

In the 1980s, the situation in the Middle East began to have more impact in France. A number of hostage crises, assassinations, and attacks shook France during the Lebanese civil war and Israel’s invasion of southern Lebanon. A series of attacks were made on Jewish targets, such as the bombing of the Rue Copernic liberal synagogue in Paris in October 1980 and that of the Goldenberg restaurant in the Marais neighbourhood of Paris in 1982.

Violence relating to the Middle East is no longer committed by external actors and commandos. Instead, it is carried out by French citizens who have gradually internalised the conflict.

Recent attacks against French synagogues inevitably bring these earlier incidents to mind. However, since the 1990s, a new dynamic has been at play: violence relating to the Middle East is no longer committed by external actors and commandos. Instead, it is carried out by French citizens who have gradually internalised the conflict. France has sizeable Jewish and Muslim communities, who up until now had been involved in a shared struggle against various forms of racism, xenophobia, and discrimination. But now, the two communities are taking action on opposing sides in response to the events in the Middle East.

Renewed confrontation

Most French people in the 1990s and early 2000s favoured the Palestinians because of the First Intifada (1987-1993), the failure of the Oslo negotiations (1993-1995), the failure of the Camp David II negotiations (2000), and the Jewish state’s continued violation of international law. Most of Western Europe – and the rest of the world – agreed. In the autumn of 2000, the Second Intifada divided public opinion in France, showing the intensity of the negative perceptions grafted onto the political impasse in the Middle East. Violence broke out, with many demonstrations and clashes on French soil.

Nearly 15 years later, globalisation has magnified the conflict’s impact on society, due to the omnipresent news media and the rise of social networks. As a result, there has been an upsurge in community-driven passions within France that has increased throughout this deadly summer. The conflict itself has also become far more radicalised, as Israelis grow more exasperated and stern and Palestinians become more extreme and desperate.

On the Jewish side, people are afraid. Dieudonné, a comedian known for making anti-Semitic references and for pushing the legal limits of Holocaust denial, has caused controversy. Increasingly violent anti-Semitic acts have taken place, such as the kidnapping, torture, and murder in 2006 of a young Jewish man, Ilan Halimi, by the “Gang of Barbarians”. During Mohammed Merah’s killing spree in Toulouse in 2012, he murdered children at the Jewish school, Ozar Hatorah.

Some Israeli intellectuals and citizens have severely criticised the current military escalation and the Netanyahu government. But many French Jews believe that any opposition to Israel’s policies is a contemporary form of Judeophobia. A small but growing minority has now taken it one step further and chosen to emigrate to the Holy Land.

In the past, the French Jewish community engaged in real constructive criticism of the Jewish state. One key figure in this was the Marxist historian Maxime Rodinson, who had lost his parents at Auschwitz. In 1967, he published the notorious article “Israel: a colonial settler state?” in Les Temps Modernes. In the piece, he courageously called for fair and balanced negotiations between Jews and Arabs and advocated ending the humiliation of Palestinians. His argument earned him the ire of his co-religionists.

Such powerful anti-Zionist arguments are less common today. However, liberal criticism of Israel condemning the occupation and the settlements has survived, for example in the organisations, Deux Peuples, Deux États and European Jewish Call for Reason (JCall). These and other voices have taken a very critical stance on the current Gaza stalemate, albeit more muted than in years gone by.

Hostility towards Israel and Jews has become an intrinsic part of the process by which some French Muslims, primarily those of North African or African origin, define themselves within French society.

Hostility towards Israel and Jews has become an intrinsic part of the process by which some French Muslims, primarily those of North African or African origin, define themselves within French society. They readily identify with the revolutionary cause of the Palestinian fidayyin or militants. They see the Palestinians as having to deal with an illegitimate occupation, as many of their own ancestors did, and with a colonising and murderous state, as they used to see France. They relate more to the victims of the Israeli Defence Forces’s bombing of Gaza than to victims of other regional crises, from Libya to Syria to Egypt and Iraq.

The rise of Salafi Islam in France, with an extreme outlook that urges hatred for Jewish and Western “infidels” and “crusaders”, makes this kind of thinking still more common. But this enmity is not confined to the children of immigrants: it is also prevalent among converts to Islam. Moreover, anti-Zionism, which is sometimes just a cover for anti-Semitism, is widespread within French society. These days, it is partly a response to Israeli militarism and partly caused by the pronounced pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian positions taken by certain Jewish community leaders who no longer make any distinction between Israel and Jews, even in the face of Tel Aviv’s most dangerous and indefensible policies.

Fascinatingly, the French far right in general and Le Pen’s Front National in particular, which is stronger than any other far-right party in Europe and is well known for its past anti-Semitic remarks, has now become explicitly pro-Israel. For its leaders, Israel is an ethnic state for Jews just as France should be a state for the genuine French.

The French authorities must take the latest outbreak of violence between Israel and the Palestinians very seriously. They need not only to revive and rebalance their diplomacy in the Middle East – which is still a key issue in view of the peace process’s recent collapse – but also to better understand and address important domestic concerns. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the broader Arab-Israeli question, is a central vehicle for radicalisation in France. Through its transposition onto French society and through the mirror image between more hard-line ethno-religious communities, it is one of many symptoms of a growing unease that is spreading through the country, amid a continuing socioeconomic crisis and a deep questioning of multiculturalism in its French form.

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Myriam Benraad holds a Ph.D. in Political Science and Middle East Studies at Sciences Po Paris and is currently a policy fellow for the Middle East and North Africa Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), an associate fellow at the Centre for International Studies and Research (CERI) and the Institute for Research and Studies on the Arab and Muslim World (IREMAM-CNRS).