French presidential election (1)

Israel-Palestine: Emmanuel Macron on the Way to Jerusalem

In the wake of the Abraham Accords, the outgoing president of the French Republic, a fan of Israel, fascinated by that start-up nation, could bring about a change in his country’s historic option in favour of the two-State solution. Several countries involved in these accords are allies of France and regular customers of its armaments industry. This is part one of an Orient XXI review of the positions of the presidential candidates on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Palais de l’Elysée, 18 March 2021. Emmanuel Macron during a joint press conference with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on an official visit to Paris
Ludovic Marin/Pool/AFP

It was a brief remark that went unnoticed. On 24 February 2022 at the annual dinner of the Conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France (CRIF) in the Carrousel du Louvre in Paris, the thousand guests had something else on their minds. Ambassadors, ministers – practically the whole cabinet, and four presidential candidates, mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo, president of the Regional Council of Île-de-France Valérie Pécresse, MPs Yannick Jadot and Jean Lassalle, all spoke of nothing but Ukraine. The guest of honour, President Emmanuel Macron failed to show up having to attend an emergency meeting in Brussels dealing with the war which Russia had just launched against Ukraine. He was represented by his wife Brigitte and Prime Minister Jean Castex.

The latter read a speech written by the President: “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people” he hammered in Macron’s name. “And like you I am disturbed by the UN resolution on Jerusalem which still rejects, deliberately and against all evidence, the Jewish terminology, “The Temple Mount”. That resolution, adopted by the UN in December 2021 and approved by France, was described as “negationist” by CRIF chairman Francis Kalifat in his introductory speech. One tune in New York, another in Paris: Macron’s “double speak” illustrates the “en même temps” principle1 that obfuscates the vagaries of his foreign policy.

Though the President stresses his personal fondness for Jerusalem, public opinion has retained only his visit to the church of Saint Anne in the Old City. In January 2020 he lashed out at the Israeli policemen guarding that piece of French property, trying to perform a “remake” of Chirac’s famous display of temper against other Israeli policemen in that same Old City. At the time Macron was not making an official presidential visit but a “memorial” visit in the context of an international forum held to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

For those words about Jerusalem, the President was applauded by the CRIF’s dinner guests. Following Trump’s “deal of the century” and his transfer of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, the CRIF had enjoined France to follow the flow to “the eternal capital” by establishing its embassy there too. “I have never heard him say anything of the sort,” an attentive connoisseur of the region told me. “Any more than I knew him to be a frequent visitor in Jerusalem. But perhaps he went on a pilgrimage there in his teens?” the same man wonders sarcastically.

“Shameful abuse of historic terms”

In the same breath, as it were, the President denounced the report presented by Amnesty International (without naming the organisation) on Israel’s regime of apartheid vis-à-vis the Palestinians, released at the beginning of February. “It is a shameful abuse of an historic term. How can one speak of apartheid? That is a flagrant untruth!” Behind-the-scene Aurore Bergé, chairperson of The Friends of Israel and MP in the Presidential majority (La République en marche — LREM), knocked it up a notch, slamming “Amnesty International’s scandalous campaign, invoking apartheid when it is so obvious that Israel is a democracy. The associations preaching hate should obviously be banned!” Apparently threatening Amnesty International, Bergé was referring to the disbanding of two (tiny) associations, the collective Palestine vaincra and the Comité Action Palestine. Demanded by Francis Kalifat and Minister of Interior Affairs Gérard Darmanin, who also attended that dinner, their imminent dissolution was announced immediately by Jean Castex – i.e., by Macron. And it was indeed pronounced by the ministerial cabinet on 9 March 2022.

Waiting for friend Lapid

In mid-August 2023, if the coalition cabinet in which he is foreign minister holds together, Yair Lapid will be Israeli Prime Minister. He is the leader of the Yesh Atid party (“There is a future”) and the French president’s closest friend in Israel, his only friend there, no doubt. The writer of detective novels, and former journalist, the “fair-haired boy” of middle-of-the-road politics worked obsessively to unseat Benyamin Netanyahu. On 2 April 2019, just a few days before an umpteenth round of voting in Israel, the President of the Republic embraced him warmly at the Elysée with the cameras flashing. Two years before, Lapid had appealed to the French electorate to vote for Macron rather than far-right candidate Marine Le Pen. The two friends met again in Paris in November 2021, a meeting untroubled by the revelations concerning the use of Israeli-made spyware Pegasus. One diplomat waxed indignant: “Pegasus infected two of the President’s mobile phones and nothing?” “Nobody tapped the President’s phone” Lapid countered with a straight face.

The April 2019 photo was mostly meant as a message to Netanyahu. Several people who know the region well, most of them having served under François Mitterrand or Jacques Chirac, advised Macron to beware soon after he was elected. “Israel is a democracy, but the way it was governed by Netanyahu was problematic,” a former member of our intelligence services explained to me, “There is the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the system hangs on democracy. But still, there are holes in it, the occupation system is really creepy”. Thus forewarned, “Macron did not want to get too chummy,” with Netanyahu who was often thought to be “devious” and “untrustworthy” in Paris.

A “risk of apartheid in Israel”

“Indeed, the President is on good terms with Tel-Aviv and with the political, economic and cultural circles in Paris which support Israel” says an MP who belongs to the outgoing majority. “This said, with regard to the plans to annex the Jordan Valley, Macron did the job, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was 100% clear, sharp and precise.” “France kept silent but was not speechless” Bertrand Heilbronn, a member of France-Palestine Solidarité, must admit. Le Drian addressed the Senate in terms which did not spare the Israeli government and in 2021 even referred to a “risk of Apartheid in Israel” if the two-states solution makes no headway. But under Macron France has done nothing more to recognise the State of Palestine than under François Holland, despite a parliamentary ballot in 2014 overwhelmingly in favour of recognition with 339 MPs voting for and only 151 against.“The French parliament’s position has not influenced our two successive presidents,” Gwendal Rouillard deplores. An MP with the LREM, the presidential party, on close terms with Jean-Yves Le Drian, he belonged to the Socialist Party in 2014 and voted in favour of that resolution. But while France has diplomatic relations with Palestine, Sweden remains the only European country to recognise its statehood.

While the Foreign Minister has failed to move the recognition process forward, he has never set foot in Israel, either under Holland or Macron. Yet he knows the region well, for he has been instrumental in organising the sales of French weaponry there, which have increased exponentially during the last decade with very big purchasers: United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Egypt. Premiers Edouard Philippe and Jean Castex – in a different sanitary context for the latter, of course – have not been to Israel either during Macron’s presidency. In 2020 Gilles Boyer, a European MP and Edouard Philippe’s closest advisor and friend even signed a petition launched by his parliamentary colleagues opposing the annexation, as did Gwendal Rouillard. Three left-wing candidates: Jean-Luc Mélenchon (LFI), Yannick Jadot (EELV) and Fabien Roussel (CP) also signed that text, as did the European MP (LREM), Stéphane Séjourné, one of Macron’s advisors and in private life, government spokesperson, Gabriel Attal’s companion. Attal attended that CRIF dinner but Séjourné did not.

Keeping the US at a distance

In practice, however, despite the official protests and petitions from MPs, nothing has happened. In Rony Brauman’s words, “Palestine is not his cup of tea.” He is a man alone, “tempted by a monarchic drift” he adds. In foreign affairs, he has no personal vision“, adds communist MP Jean-Claude Lefort. So, bouncing back on the strength of the Abraham Accords might be a golden opportunity to regain the initiative.”The Abraham Accords are generally thought to be something the Americans wanted but it was actually the Israelis who worked hardest to bring them off. Israel is trying to break away from the US. This distancing goes along with an intensification of Israel’s exchanges with China." Now Israel’s most effective support in that affair was provided by the Emirates. And the UAE are not only customers but allies of France, which has three military bases on their territory. It is hard to imagine that the generals and businessmen who spend so much time in Abu Dhabi did not discuss the Abraham Accords in advance with their Emirati friends. And brought the information they gathered back to Paris, to Le Drian and, of course, to Macron.

France also has a military base in Jordan, where Rafale fighter planes are deployed as well as anti-missile systems, and it also maintains close military and security ties with Egypt as was recently revealed by the website Disclose. In addition to these accords, historian Frédérique Schillo tells us, “on two essential points, France and Israel are in the same camp: on Libya, with the UAE, and on gas in the Mediterranean basin, with the forum organised by Israel, Egypt and Jordan.”

Of course, “France did not go along with Trump on Jerusalem, the West Bank or the Golan Heights, repeated its traditional positions on the occupation and the two-state solution,” another expert on the region explains. “But we have the same buddies as Israel, the UAE, Morocco, as well as Egypt and Jordan. Which explains Macron’s very cautious posture, he prefers sweeping the dust under the carpet.” “We have to take into account the balance of power on the ground, and Trump’s plan too, not accepting the whole plan but because it is something new and a point of departure” an outgoing LREM MP explains. “We need to have a clear-cut position which will involve recognising Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” says another MP. So, Macron’s little remark at the CRIF dinner turns out to be anything but negligible.

Is this a way of endorsing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and is it an indication of what might be, in the event of a second term, the evolution of French policy? “Do not expect to find a program, there is not any, since the outgoing president, campaigning for a second term, tends more to defend his record than offer any alternatives” an MP in the majority explains to me. While he has a lot of champions of Israel in his entourage, including several ministers and many friends, the President also arranges low-profile encounters with veterans of French diplomacy. Macron seems, this MP continues, to be looking for “a way out” after what she describes as a term of office during which he was “marking time” on the Israeli-Palestinian question. To which must be added a resounding personal setback in Lebanon.2

Bouncing back with the Abraham accords

Faced with the new deal constituted by the Abraham Accords, “France merely took note.” While US-Israel relations became durably strained, Macron is said to have imagined a strategic alliance involving Israel and several Arab countries, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco. But what is the point of bringing that up now since it is a can of worms? “It is not a very popular subject. So, we do not want to stick our necks out, which is not very courageous or very glorious”, is the comment from an MP in the outgoing majority. In this context, there is not a word about Palestine, the great oversight of these final months of Macron’s term of office. The Palestinians must not expect much from France if Macron is re-elected on 24 April. His statement about Jerusalem made the Palestinians feel they had been stabbed in the back. The French consul in Jerusalem was summoned to Ramallah where he repeated the same old mantra: his country’s position remains unchanged… Again, who is to be believed?

Macron “is making a fundamental analytical error by hinting that this is no longer any of our business,” says Lydia Samarbaknsh in charge of international relations for the French Communist Party (FCP). “France has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, there is a long-term battle to be fought in favour of a political solution. Where are the interests of populations dealt with in the present policies of this President of the Republic? For the past ten years, in this cabinet and the previous one, Jean-Yves Le Drian has been a minister of arms sales. That weighs heavily in the balance, especially with the petro-monarchies and the authoritarian regimes in that part of the world.” Not very glorious but perfectly exact. Under Macron, the arms trade has fuelled our diplomacy. And it is just too bad for international law and the Palestinians.

The Maillard resolution, a split revealed

The parliamentary majority complied with Emmanuel Macron’s wishes by adopting, in the autumn of 2019, a resolution drafted by MP Sylvain Maillard (LREM) on anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, to the delight of the Israeli government. But it was not a very glorious moment, with only 134 votes for out of a total of 577 MPs. The LREM group numbers 303 MPs and only 84 voted in favour of the resolution, 26 against it. Macron had promised Netanyahu this ballot, using all the proper phraseology, during a ceremony at the Vel d’Hiv’3 in 2017. He also satisfied thereby the French neocons who are very sensitive to the Siren song of those who claim that anti-Zionism is nothing but a disguise for anti-Semitism. This said, and contrary to the CRIF chairman in his 2019 speech, Macron did not refer to his February speech to this pernicious confusion.

The Maillard resolution shed light on a malaise among MPs. “It was counterproductive. Many MPs wondered why there was this attempt to manipulate them on this divisive subject. They said to themselves that there was something fishy,” an outgoing MP explains. “The Maillard resolution was a real blunder. It consecrated the confusion between anti-Semitism, always reprehensible, and criticism of Israeli policies. It was understood as a one-way signal”, Gwendal Rouillard, outgoing MP (LREM) from the Morbihan deplored. His colleague Bruno Joncour, with the Mouvement démocrate (Modem) agreed: “The Maillard Resolution was a divisive moment. There was no clear majority, far from it, which revealed the complexity of the issue. In the Modem, the result was most inglorious: 5 for, 5 against.” And 13 abstentions…

While the great majority of La France Insoumise and the Gauche démocratique et républicaine (The FCP and its allies) voted against the resolution (including candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon, but not Fabien Russel, communist candidate for the presidency, who abstained), the vote on the Maillard resolution caused splits in LREM, the Socialist Party and the Modem. “On the Israel-Palestine issue, many MPs keep silent, mostly out of opportunism or cowardice. They are afraid of being trapped in a fracas. Islamophobia is flattering whereas to be accused of anti-Semitism is degrading. The vote on the Maillard resolution showed that the subject involved a lot of pitfalls” a well-informed observer of the Middle East complained. And there is no change in sight…

1TRANSLATOR’S NOTE:”At the asame time" was a leitmotif that ran through his 2017 campaign, mendaciously promising progressive reforms to offset the disastrous consequences of his neo-liberal policies.

2TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: Allusion to his protégé Premier designate Saad Hariri’s failure to form a coalition government after eight months of crisis.

3TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: A bicycle-racing stadium where the French police and the Gestapo parked Jews prior to their deportation in 1942.