Paris, France – After the Palestinian group Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7, French President Emmanuel Macron was quick to join his European counterparts in condemning the violence.
He expressed Paris’s full support for Israel’s right to defend itself as the Eiffel Tower was lit up in the colours of the Israeli flag.
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The Hamas assault set off a major new conflict, with Israel now promising a ground invasion of Gaza to crush the Palestinian group which rules the besieged strip. More than 3,000 Palestinians have been killed, as well as at least 1,400 in Israel, in less than two weeks.
France banned protests in support of Palestine on October 12 and police have fired on the demonstrators who defied the order with tear gas and water cannon.
Al Jazeera spoke with French journalist Alain Gresh, who has written several books on the Middle East conflict. Gresh is also the founder of Orient XXI, a digital magazine which analyses developments in the Arab and Muslim worlds.
Al Jazeera: How has France’s position on the Israel-Palestine conflict evolved over the years?
Alain Gresh: Charles de Gaulle [the first president of the fifth and current French republic] paved the way when he condemned Israeli aggression in 1967 and the presidents that came after him more or less continued with this policy, despite being from different political parties.
The policy consisted of not only condemning Israeli aggression but also of saying that recognising the state of Palestine was part of the solution [to bringing peace to this region]. France at the time led the charge on this issue in Europe and its efforts culminated in the Venice Declaration [an agreement issued by the nine members of the European Economic Community – the precursor to the European Union].
Al Jazeera: What did that declaration say?
Gresh: It stated that there would be no solution [to the Israel-Palestine conflict] unless all states in the region, including Israel, were recognised, negotiation talks were held with the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization, a Palestinian group that is now recognised as the official representative of the Palestinian Authority] and that the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people were recognised, including the right to self-government.
At that time, the US still considered the PLO to be a terrorist organisation. In fact, President Nixon even said something along the lines that Europe wanted [the US] to negotiate with “Arab Nazis”. Israel’s current prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has made the same comparison with Hamas.
France at that time recognised that there would be no solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict unless the Palestinians were included and its relationship with Israel was thus dependent on the situation in the Palestinian territories.
Al Jazeera: And how has France’s position changed since then?
Gresh: In the years since Presidents Nicolas Sarkozy, Francois Hollande and now Emmanuel Macron, France has said that it hasn’t changed its position on the Israel-Palestine conflict, saying that they still want a two-state solution and condemning expanding Israeli settlements.
However, the problem is that its stance has indeed changed, as it is now developing bilateral relationships with Israel, as if Palestine doesn’t exist.
They are not putting any real pressure on Israel, and the relationship between Israel and France on matters such as security has never been so good. This shift was not a one-day decision and many factors contributed to it.
For instance, [terrorism] has played an important role. After 9/11 in the US, France started saying that, “We are in a war against terror” and that the Israelis are “fighting terror and Islamists just like us”.
Presenting Islamism as a threat to European security and identity has played an important role in changing France’s position [on the Israel-Palestine conflict] and that of other European countries across the political spectrum.
From 1967 onwards, de Gaulle wanted to develop relationships with the Arab world and part of this meant having a strong position on Palestine. Now, you can have good relations with the “official” Arab world even if you are 100 percent pro-Israeli. It has become easier to have this position now that part of the Arab world has opened diplomatic relations with Israel.
Al Jazeera: France, which is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, a community the state often has tensions with, recently made headlines by banning pro-Palestinian protests. Paris said that they are “likely to generate disturbances to the public order”. What’s behind this order, and how does it conflict with France’s commitment to free speech?
Gresh: It was different at the beginning of Macron’s presidency. They [the French government] have attacked the Palestinian cause more and more. They tried to criminalise the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement, which went to the European court to say that their movement should be allowed to continue because of the right to freedom of speech [the European court subsequently ruled in their favour].
It’s clear that the French government feels that what is happening in Gaza has brought this debate to a whole new level.
[Banning pro-Palestine protests] is hypocrisy. It is very strange in a country where we defended Charlie Hebdo, which published cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad, and that in the aftermath of the 2015 terrorist attacks, we said that we can say whatever we want in the name of freedom of speech.
They [the French government] are condemning BDS, which is not a violent movement and trying to put pressure on people so that they can’t express solidarity with Palestine. It’s a risky position in my opinion as it widens the gap between France and the Arab world. France is … seen as having become worse because of its opposition to the abaya, the hijab.
Distancing itself from its Muslim population and not allowing it to express support for Palestine may push people to do crazy things. If you can’t express your support using political means, some people will want to express it in a violent way, and I think that is very dangerous.
Al Jazeera: Other than Macron’s centrist party, where do the others stand?
Gresh: If we examine France’s different political parties, it’s clear Macron’s party has a very strong anti-Palestinian position, even though they say that they support the two-state solution.
Even left-wing parties in France have been reluctant to take on the Palestinian cause, except for Jean-Luc Melenchon’s [far-left] La France Insoumise [France Unbowed] party and grassroots organisations.
There’s also somewhat of an internal political struggle happening in France, as Melenchon’s party has refused to describe Hamas as a terrorist organisation [following the October 7 attack].
I think some of the political forces in France want to get rid of Melenchon, like they did with Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. They are simply trying to use what has been happening in Gaza to attack him. It has nothing to do with the Palestinian cause.
Al Jazeera: Upon Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, France, along with other European countries, said that Ukraine had a right to defend itself. However, following Hamas’s attack on Israel, it showed support for Israel while making no acknowledgement of Israel’s continued occupation of Palestine. Why the double standards in your view?
Gresh: There is no logic to it. We have condemned Russia for starving a population and cutting off water and electricity, but now we are supporting Israel as they do the same thing.
Al Jazeera: Considering France’s own history with anti-Semitism, most notably with the mass deportation of Jews during World War II, how has this shaped French policy towards the Israel-Palestine conflict?
Gresh: Of course it has shaped French policy, but if anything anti-Semitism was much more of a problem back in 1967 than it is today. I think it is merely a pretext. Of course, there are still problems with anti-Semitism today, we must acknowledge that much of it is coming from [France’s far-right] National Rally party. Marine Le Pen [leader of the National Rally] says that she supports Israel today, but like many extreme right groups now, we can only say that they are more anti-Islamic than anti-Semitic.
Israel doesn’t really care about anti-Semitism, they merely weaponise it. You can see that when they forge relations with far-right parties in Eastern Europe that they don’t have a problem with anti-Semitism then, as they’re trying to make a front of all people who support Israel. However, it is worth noting that most of the big far-right parties are more anti-Islam than anti-Semitic now.
Al Jazeera: Many among France’s sizeable Jewish population hold strong ties with Israel. Could tensions between communities in France emerge?
Gresh: It’s been an issue since 1967. I remember the French government was concerned back then about potential clashes between Jews and Muslims in France. After the Algerian War, much of the country’s Jewish population came to France after independence.
We now have a population of five million Muslims and 500,000 Jews [the largest in Europe for both groups]. It’s normal that the government has some concerns, but if you have concerns, then you must ban demonstrations in support of both Israel and Palestine, not just one or the other.
Al Jazeera: In your view, how should France be approaching the latest Middle East conflict?
Gresh: I want the French government to return to when it had a voice independent of the US and Israel. In the 1980s, it pushed for the PLO to be recognised, which led to talks between the PLO and Israel. We must have a political process.
Regarding the situation in Gaza, the problem is that the people living there are willing to do anything to get out of it.
Following the Munich 1972 Olympic Games [during which members of the PLO invaded the Olympic Village and killed two members of the Israeli team], what led to the PLO renouncing this type of activity was the possibility of a political solution.
Now the Palestinians don’t have any possible political solution. France should help create the political solution. Violence is not the solution, so France should step up and help create it [the political solution], though I fear they do not want to.
Note: This interview was lightly edited for clarity and brevity.