This was first published in the Jerusalem Post, and republished here with the author’s consent…
Sovereignty – Can Israel’s expand while France’s has shrunk?
France has presented itself in the media as the leader of those countries, which want the European Union to take punitive action against Israel if it annexes part of the West Bank.1 Yet the meeting of EU Foreign Ministers on May 15 did not even reach agreement on a milder motion.2
This attempt at French anti-Israel leadership comes at a low point in that country’s history. By May 17, France had more than 27,000 deaths from the Coronavirus, placing it among the worst hit European nations.3 Economic problems are sizable. Already before the pandemic, France’s gross domestic product to debt ratio was poor, at close to 100%. The EU tells its member states to strive for that ratio to be around 60% and for the budget deficit not to exceed 3%. By mid-April, French ministers were forecasting a 9% budget deficit for 2020 and a GDP/debt ratio of 115%.4 This may well be optimistic. President Emanuel Macron’s popularity is declining. Toward the end of April he was polling at 38%. During the onset of the pandemic it had increased.5
For a long time the EU was steered by a German-French axis. For decades the Germans were willing to give France a larger role in the EU than it merited because of the political and economic weight it pulled. This was related to Germany’s atrocious war-time past. Their lower than warranted profile suited the Germans. During Angela Merkel’s lengthy chancellorship which began in 2005, Germany became more dominant. That was all the more the case as the previous socialist French President François Hollande (2012-2017) was a weak leader.
A further decline in France’s status threatens. The German daily, Die Welt, wrote that France was terribly ill prepared for the pandemic, which it paid for with many deaths. It added that France was now economically far behind Germany. There has been a huge loss of confidence by French citizens in their country’s political leadership. The paper also claimed that there was in the past a feeling in France that it occupied an intermediate position between the EU countries of Northern Europe and the economically problematic Southern Europe. After the Corona crisis, it clearly belongs to the southern group. 6
There are other extreme anti-Israel inciting member countries of the EU.7 Why would France want to be the leader of the anti-Israel annexation camp? At this critical moment of national failure shouldn’t France look inwards? Why indeed take a leading role internationally?
A number of factors seem to come into play. French foreign policy is the domain of the country’s president. Yet a former assistant of French president, Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012), told me that it was very difficult for his boss to keep the Foreign office under control. The Quai d’Orsay — as that office is often named after its location — behaves very independently. It has had a pro-Arab policy since the nineteenth century.
In 2008, David Pryce-Jones published his book, Betrayal: France, the Arabs and the Jews.8 His research included documents that he had access to from the archives of the French Foreign Ministry. He concluded that France has done more damage in the Middle East than any other country.
While France has lost its empire, it still tries to keep up an image of grandeur far beyond its real political and economic weight. That also means looking down upon Israel. A well-remembered diplomatic incident occurred in 2001 at a private dinner party hosted by Conrad Black, then the owner of the Daily Telegraph, where the French ambassador to the UK Daniel Bernard, called Israel a ‘shitty little country.’9 When Black’s wife Barbara Amiel published this Bernard attempted to wiggle out of it. The scandal created no problems for him in France as Bernard was appointed ambassador in Algeria, another important posting. He died there in 2004.
Gérard Araud was appointed as French ambassador to Israel in 2003. He had not yet presented his credentials when he said: “Sharon (who at the time was Israel’s prime minister) is a thug and Israel is paranoid.”10 This almost cost him his job. By using the expression “paranoid”, he demonstrated the French mix of politics and psychology even clearer.
Perhaps here we also have an indication of one reason why France still wants to lead the anti-Israel annexation camp. The psychological factor may play an important role. France isn’t totally sovereign on its own territory. There are a large number of ‘difficult to go’ areas. The French police have a hard time entering and leaving these areas unscathed. It is a sign of total government impotence and incompetence that this situation has evolved.
Is it too far a psychological jump to think that on the one hand, France has given up some sovereignty on its own territory? On the other hand, “shitty little Israel” wants to enlarge its sovereignty. That is mentally unbearable. Why would France put an emphasis on international law if it cannot even fully apply its domestic laws? One cannot lay a country on the couch. Yet the thought merits stating.
8 David Pryce-Jones: Betrayal: France, the Arabs and the Jews (NY, Encounter Books, 2008)