France has been a key contributor to Project Israel and its lethal, life-destroying remit, writes Susan Ram
In May of this year, as bombs from Israeli jets were pummelling the Gaza Strip, the French interior minister, Gérald Darminin, declared a nationwide ban on protests in solidarity with Palestine. The Paris police prefecture swiftly issued a decree making any such demonstrations illegal, on the grounds they could bring together “risky elements aimed at provoking violent confrontations with the police.”
Over in the Elysée Palace, meanwhile, French president Emmanuel Macron was engaged in a tricky manoeuvre: that of conveying fulsome support for the state of Israel while also proffering his services as an ‘honest broker’ committed to ending hostilities. In a telephone call with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 14, Macron emphasised his “unwavering attachment” to Israel’s security and fiercely condemned rocket attacks by Hamas into Israeli territory. All the same, he was careful to underline the “urgency of a return to peace” and “expressed concern about the civilian populations in Gaza,” as an official statement put it.
This recent display of French government fidelity to the Zionist project – a fresh reminder of the value accorded Israel by the French state – provides a useful starting point for a review of the relationship between the two nations. This article focuses on three episodes from that century-long history: France’s role in Israel’s inception; the particularly intimate ties that developed between France and Israel in the 1950s; and the direction of travel in contemporary, ‘War on Terror’ times.
In at the start: France and the inception of Israel
Prior to World War 1, the possibilities presented by the Zionist movement to Western imperialism seem to have had limited resonance in France. This was despite the early emergence in the country of the Alliance Israélite Universelle (AIU), a precursor of Zionism which, among other activities, proposed the colonisation of Palestine by Jews fleeing the pogroms in Tsarist Russia.
In the late nineteenth century, French foreign policy was coloured by a rising tide of antisemitism encouraged and propagated by the state. The peak of anti-Jewish hysteria was achieved during the trial, in 1895, of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain of Jewish heritage who stood accused of passing military secrets to Germany.
Court-martialled, publicly humiliated and dispatched to hell-hole imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a penal colony off the coast of French Guiana, Dreyfus would have perished without the intervention of campaigners (among them the writer Emile Zola) who worked doggedly for his acquittal. The travesty, with its murky trail of forged documents and its labyrinthine official cover-up, is brilliantly recreated in Robert Harris’s 2013 novel An Officer and a Spy (also made into a film in 2019).
It was only with the eruption of imperialist rivalries in 1914 that the French state finally began turning its attention to the Zionist project in the Middle East. When in March 1916 Edward Grey, the then British foreign secretary, first mooted the idea of a public declaration supporting Jewish aspirations in Palestine, he sent his proposal to the ambassadors of Russia – and France.
By this point, secret talks were in progress between Britain and France regarding the future of the Middle East, which for centuries had been under the sway of a now crumbling Ottoman Empire. Under the terms of the covert Sykes-Picot Agreement, ratified in May 1916, Britain and France set out mutually defined future spheres of interest in what was effectively a Franco-British carve-up of Ottoman provinces outside the Arabian peninsula. While Palestine, Jordan and southern Iraq would fall on the British side of the projected Sykes-Picot line, France would bag Syria, Lebanon, northern Iraq and south-eastern Turkey.
In early 1917, an unpublished message (the Cambon letter) sent by the French government to a Zionist diplomat for the first time indicated French support for the Zionist project in Palestine. French endorsement was a necessary precondition for the Balfour Declaration of November 1917: Britain’s formal commitment to the establishment in Palestine of “a national home for the Jewish people”.
The French state, then, endorsed steps fundamental to the creation of Israel. That said, France’s support for the Zionist state would subsequently wax and wane in line with its own imperialist interests and aspirations.
Growing intimacy: the 1950s
Fast forward three decades to the years immediately following World War 2 and Israel’s formal emergence as a state in 1948. This period saw France strenuously attempting to retain its grip on a swathe of colonies from Southeast Asia to North Africa. With decolonisation and non-alignment in the air and a resurgence of national liberation movements across a lengthening list of theatres, France identified Israel as a reliable ally and a bulwark, especially against assertive Arab nationalism.
By the mid-1950s, France was supplying Israel with Mirage jet fighters and other military materiel, becoming its principal arms supplier in this period. The intimacy of the Israeli-French relationship at this time is exemplified by the 1956 Suez invasion: a ludicrously inept plan, concocted by France, Israel, and Britain, to topple Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser. It followed Nasser’s announcement, on July 26, 1956, that Egypt was taking immediate control of the Suez Canal company, effectively nationalising what for imperialism was a super-strategic maritime artery.
A sequence of hush-hush plot-hatching meetings involving representatives of the three governments were held in the Paris suburb of Sèvres through the autumn of 1956. By mid-October, as the journalist Ian Black notes
“war became inevitable, thanks to an intimate alliance between the French and the Israelis, who were itching for a preventive war with Egypt after a string of border raids over the preceding months. Guy Mollet, the socialist prime minister, was desperate to stop Egypt backing the rebellion in Algeria.”
The historian Avi Shlaim credits France with the role of “matchmaker” for the benighted tripartite alliance.
In the event, the Suez operation proved disastrous for both France and Britain. Their bit of the action – invading the Canal as Israeli forces advanced into Sinai – was abruptly stymied by a ceasefire imposed under fierce Soviet and US pressure. Both European powers pulled out, compelling Israel to abandon the territory it had seized from Egypt.
Still, post-Suez, France was the ally to which Israel turned for help in developing its nuclear capacity. Earlier talks on French aid in building a nuclear reactor now shifted towards an agreement (secret, naturally) on the development of an Israeli nuclear deterrent. For France, bent on obtaining the bomb for itself, co-operation with Israel offered a way of circumventing embargos imposed by the US on certain nuclear enabling technology. It also promised French access to the heavy water the US was already supplying Israel. French strategic concerns, especially the intensifying anti-colonial struggle in Algeria, also fed into the policy.
As the US military historian Warner D. Farr observes
“Cooperation was so close that Israel worked with France on the pre-production design of early Mirage jet aircraft, designed to be capable of delivering nuclear bombs. French experts secretly built the Israel reactor underground at Dimona, in the Negev desert… Hundreds of French engineers and technicians filled Beersheba, the biggest town in the Negev.”
France, then, played a crucial facilitating role in Israel’s ascent to its continuing status as the Middle East’s sole nuclear weapons power. Despite subsequent twists and turns in Franco-Israeli relations (in 1967, French strategic interests, as read by De Gaulle in the context of Israel’s Six Day War, led to France imposing an arms embargo on Israel which lasted seven years), France must be rated a central contributor to Project Israel and its lethal, life-destroying remit.
Macron, BDS and the ‘War on Terror’
Developments in Franco-Israeli relations under Macron’s presidency have revealed the extent to which the French embrace of Israel is also shaped by domestic considerations, in particular the presence in France of the largest Muslim (by religious affiliation or culture) population for any European state. Macron’s ongoing efforts to criminalise all Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) activity in France are one expression of this; banning pro-Palestine demonstrations is another. Both find their ‘justification’ in Macron’s insistence (now written into French law) that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism.
In 2017, when Macron staged the first commemoration in France of the 1942 ‘Vel d’Hiv’ raids (in which French police rounded up thousands of Jews in a Paris velodrome prior to their transportation to death camps in Germany) he did so alongside Benjamin Netanyahu, his special guest for the occasion. As one commentator noted, this had the effect of portraying the head of a foreign power as if he were a representative of French Jews. In all events, ‘Bibi’ must have been gratified to hear Macron, at the end of the ceremony, declare anti-Zionism and the BDS campaign to be a dangerous new form of antisemitism.
Two years later, legislation came into effect outlawing all public opposition to the racist, settler-colonial, apartheid state. This followed Macron’s cynical manipulation of a sequence of attacks on Jewish individuals, cemeteries and places of worship. While some evidence pointed towards the involvement of a radicalised Islamist fringe, elements from the French far right were also implicated. That France was concurrently experiencing an unprecedented wave of Islamophobic attacks, with much of the racism directly attributable to state-endorsed policies hostile to Muslims, received no acknowledgement in the Elysée Palace.
In fact, a pronounced degree of selectivity when it comes to racism has become a leitmotif of the Macron presidency. Beyond the domestic context and the need (from Macron’s perspective) to keep bearing down on uppity Muslims and their ‘Islamo-gauchiste’ (Islam-friendly leftist) allies, there’s the continuing ‘War on Terror’ and the stage it offers Macron for French aggrandisement and assertions of global power.
Despite his announcement, in early July 2021, of plans to begin scaling down French troop deployments in the Sahel (the current focus of France’s anti-terrorist operations overseas), Macron is adamant that French forces will continue to provide the “backbone” of military efforts in this vast theatre of war.
In such a context – and irrespective of who wins next year’s French presidential polls – the intimate ties between France and Israel seem set to run and run.
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Susan Ram is a writer, editor and journalist based in south-west France. She's currently at work on a book about the French Left, for publication in India, where she lived for many years.
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