Macron’s readiness to equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism and endow it with the full force of French state power should be seen as a defining moment in his presidency, argues Susan Ram
The visit by Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu to Paris, just two days after Donald Trump’s departure, provides further insights into the priorities, ideological leanings and global pretensions of France’s new president, Emmanuel Macron.
Significantly, both high-profile state guests were in Paris to officiate at events antithetical to their politics and way of being in the world. Trump graced celebrations in the capital to mark the storming of the Bastille in 1789, an event whose revolutionary symbolism (probably lost on Trump) was ably camouflaged by military pomp. Bibi was guest of honour at the 75th anniversary of the mass round-up of Jews in Paris and its suburbs in 1942, a Vichy-directed atrocity known as the Vel d’Hiv (for the velodrome where many detainees were held, in abysmal conditions, prior to their deportation to Auschwitz). For anyone with the slightest awareness of Netanyahu’s cockpit role in the persecution of Palestinians and the eradication of their national identity, his triumphal progress through Paris in a convoy of limousines sporting gold-fringed Israeli flags can only induce vomit.
For Macron, his tête-à-tête with Bibi (the first occasion the two had met) was a chance to firm up elements of his encounter with Trump, reinforce his international profile, and provide further proof of his brisk, ‘new broom’ approach to politics, at home or abroad.
In relation to foreign policy, the summit revealed Macron’s ‘honest broker’ aspirations, particularly with regards to the Middle East. The first week of July had seen Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Palestinian Authority, in Paris for talks. Now Macron, boosted by his one-to-one with Trump, sought to exert his winsome charm on Netanyahu.
A report by Barak Ravid in Haaretz (July 18), drawing on diplomatic sources “familiar with the [Bibi-Macron] conversation”, detected a departure by Macron from the Israel-Palestine peace initiative pursued by his predecessor, Francois Hollande. This produced two summits, in June 2016 and January 2017, attended by neither protagonist and yielding only symbolic declarations, rebuffed by Tel Aviv for their references to Israel’s countless violations of international law.
During his talks with Macron, Netanyahu reiterated his hostility to the Hollande peace initiative. The French president reportedly did not demur. As befits a would-be regional lieutenant, he also made known his backing for Trump’s own peace plan for Israel-Palestine.
According to Israeli officials quoted by Ravid, Netanyahu left the meeting with Macron in high spirits, and “their agreements far outnumbered their disagreements.”
These off-screen manoeuvres provide context for Macron’s impassioned address at the site of the Vel d’Hiv (partially destroyed in a fire in 1959 and then demolished). Predictably, this speech, with its high octane rebuttal of Marine Le Pen’s revisionism (during the presidential election campaign, she sought to deny the involvement of the French state in the round-up, attributing the atrocity to the actions of a few individuals), captured the headlines. This had the effect of projecting Macron once more as some sort of pathbreaker, striding away from the complicity and compromise of the past.
In reality, every French president since Jacques Chirac back in 1995 has participated at the annual commemoration of the Paris deportations and paid at least lip service to the culpability of the French state. Other elements of Macron’s address, including his lauding the Franco-Israeli military alliance against a common “enemy of civilisation” (radical Islam), also figure regularly in recent French presidential discourse.
What sets Macron’s speech apart is its brazen, no-holds-barred equation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. “We will never surrender to the messages of hate,” he told his audience. “We will not surrender to anti-Zionism because it is a reinvention of anti-Semitism.”
That Macron is ready to line up behind this travesty and endow it with the full force of French state power should be seen as a defining moment in his presidency. While not the first French political figure to spout this slander (when prime minister in 2016, Manuel Valls, made a similar statement while addressing an umbrella group of French Jewish organisations), Macron has set it up in lights. As Jean-Luc Mélenchon noted in a blog written after the visit, while equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism has a long track record in France, Macron has for the first time made it official policy.
Not surprisingly this sent the mainstream Israeli media into raptures; “Macron has positioned himself as the most pro-Israel leader in Europe” was how the Jewish Chronicle captured the mood.
Three closely related factors need to be highlighted.
The first is Macron’s readiness to instrumentalise the Vel d’Hiv atrocity and exploit it to his own political ends. His lofty words need careful deconstruction; they can be seen to shore up his ‘progressive’ credentials and reputation for straight talking while underwriting ambitious foreign policy initiatives.
Secondly, Macron appears to be identifying antisemitism as a significant problem in France and the fight against it some kind of national priority. So far there’s been no sign of similar concern in relation to Islamophobia: the real elephant in the parlour of French racism. The bold new president has gone very quiet on remarks he made while visiting Algeria in February 2017, to the effect that French colonialism was a crime against humanity and “une vraie barbarie” (barbaric) that merited a national-level apology.
Thirdly, Macron’s words constitute a declaration of war on pro-Palestine mobilisation in France, especially those groups involved in the international campaign of Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS). During elections for the National Assembly in May-June of this year, two candidates running on Macron’s ticket were dropped after sending tweets judged antisemitic by French Israel lobby groups. The tweets of Christian Gerin, a television producer, had expressed support for BDS and called for a separation between Israel lobby organisations and the state. The ‘crime’ of William Tchamaha, a high school counsellor, was to call Israel an “outlaw state that disdains international law” and to urge a boycott of Israeli products.
Already subject to intensive state efforts to criminalise their activity (calls for boycotts of Israeli goods are actually outlawed in France), French supporters of Palestine and its people seem headed for even more testing times.
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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