French History and Current Attitudes to Israel

, January 1, 2005

The first Israeli ambassador to Mauritania, Freddy Eytan, was stationed in Paris in the 1970s as an Israeli diplomat and in the 1980s as a journalist. He has observed French Middle Eastern policies over a long period. In 1986 he published David and Marianne: France, Israel, and the Jews.1 Recently he authored: The Double Game,2 analyzing the policy of French President Jacques Chirac in the Middle East since 1974. In it he reflects on some major problems France has created in recent decades for Israel and the Jews, and sometimes for both simultaneously.

When discussing France’s current policies, Eytan says that to gain a perspective one has to look back several decades. “In 1956, before and during the Suez Campaign, France – with its aim of reestablishing control over the Suez Canal – had a major interest in joint military action with Israel. In the Algerian War, France was confronting the FLN national independence movement. The French government thought cooperation with Israel would be helpful on both fronts. France thus sold weapons to Israel and helped Israel establish its atomic reactor.

“During the years 1956-1962 all Arab countries, with the exception of Lebanon, severed diplomatic relations with France. The Algerian War ended in 1962 with the Evian agreements, resulting in Algeria’s independence. After its policy change in 1967, France began to say Israel was a colonial state since it had conquered territories. This masked France’s true political motives. It had understood the importance of the Arab oil reserves and sought ways to improve its relations with the Arab states. The political calculation was not difficult: there are twenty-one Arab states and only one Jewish one.

“In 1967, during and after the Six Day War, France reversed its policy toward Israel radically. Before, France had been a supporter of the Jewish state; after the war it increasingly opposed Israel on crucial matters. It is difficult to understand why General De Gaulle imposed a weapons embargo on Israel in June 1967 at the very moment when the Israelis were facing death. Had the general a memory breakdown concerning the dark years of French history in the Second World War?

“French Mirage planes were used against Israel during the Yom Kippur war as a result of the country’s pro-Arab policy. These planes, originally destined for Israel, were sold to Libya and then transferred to Egypt. With this lifting of the embargo, the mask fell and France’s double game appeared.

“Until the 1970s there was substantial French cultural influence in Israel. Many French songs were translated into Hebrew. France even had a cultural center in Jerusalem. It was closed in 1970 despite the many French speakers in Israel. Until today, Israel, despite its desire to become a member of the Association of Francophone Countries has not succeeded in this because of Arab opposition.”

Doubtful Advantages

“After the French embargo, the United States became Israel’s major weapons supplier and its most loyal ally. Since then, France has been kept outside the crucial decisions in the Middle East. Paris missed historic opportunities on almost every occasion.”

Eytan wonders: “Has France’s often anti-Israeli policy been effective? Has it given the country an advantage in the Arab world? This is very doubtful. From the energy crisis in 1974 until the Iraq war of today in which French hostages have been taken, there are many examples that it has not. History proves that France’s Arab politics, developed by the Gaullist Foreign Minister Michel Jobert, have been a major failure.

“France still has the illusion that it is a great power, but it is not. Its influence has been reduced compared to the Americans, who, since the Soviet Union’s collapse, have become the world’s sole masters. Only a coherent and balanced Europeans policy – including France – can restore its credibility in the Middle East and offer the Europeans the role that befits them.”

 Going Back to the Dreyfus Affair

Eytan notes: “On some issues, such as the roots of today’s extreme right-wing movements, one has to go back even further in time if one wishes to understand current attitudes toward Israel. The Dreyfus affair was a watershed event in French history with a long-lasting influence. One of its consequences was the founding of anti-Semitic movements such as Action Française Ligue and Action Directe.

“These and other similar movements also had a profound impact beyond the French borders on fascists such as Franco in Spain and Salazar in Portugal. They influenced Mussolini in some aspects of a combined Catholic, monarchic, fascist worldview. The adherents of the French right-wing movements were ambivalent toward the Vichy government during the war. On the one hand, Petain was France’s national hero of the First World War; on the other hand, he collaborated with the Nazis. Their attitudes varied in time.

“In 1945, these extreme right-wing anti-Semitic movements suffered a major defeat. The post-war French government made an effort to eliminate their influence. Many collaborators were brought to justice. There was popular justice too. One of the best-known examples was the cutting of the hair of women who had had affairs with Germans.”

The French Right since the End of Colonialism

“At that time, France was still a colonial power. This greatly continued to influence its foreign policy. It ruled Indochina and large parts of North Africa. Algeria was still an overseas part of France. This situation gradually gave the French extreme right new opportunities to raise its head. After the country’s defeat by the Vietnamese in Dien Bien Phu in 1957, and the independence of Algeria in 1962, right-wing movements developed that wanted to exact their revenge on the French government. De Gaulle became their prime target. Before that they had aimed at Jewish Prime Minister Pierre Mendes France, in view of his policies concerning Tunisian independence and the Indochina War.

“When French colonial history ended, the extreme right-wing movements started taking an interest in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Around the same time, left-wing and anarchist movements discovered the Palestinians. The Bader-Meinhoff terrorists of the Red Army Fraction in Germany are a typical example. They engaged physically in a fight that was not theirs. The difference between right-wing and left-wing extremists’ attitudes toward Israel became increasingly blurred.

“Toward the end of the 1970s, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s right-wing National Front movement became institutionalized. France maintained a liberal policy and did not disband it. Later, the National Front entered the European Parliament. In this way the electorate legitimized Le Pen. The National Front did not succeed in staying in the French parliament because of the high hurdles of the district electoral system.

Rewriting French History

“Highly problematic efforts to rewrite French war history started almost immediately after the war. The independent French Vichy government and not the Germans had taken the initial anti-Jewish measures. This government had come to power legally. In this, Vichy France differed from the countries occupied by the Germans. It collaborated with the Nazis. Its policemen, for instance, took a major part in the persecution of the Jews.

“Holocaust denial also raised its head soon after the war. The Jews protested but the French government did not care. The international Holocaust denial movements of the extreme right started to meet, and also collaborated in taking anti-Israeli positions. Le Pen made his perverse statement that the Holocaust is a small part of war history.

“The Communists were on the other side of the political spectrum. Many Jews had fought in their ranks during the Resistance in the Second World War. The party followed Soviet policy and thus became increasingly anti-Israeli. This attitude lasted after the disba

About Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld is emeritus chairman (2000-2012) of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. The author was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Journal for the Study of Antisemitism, and the International Leadership Award by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. His latest book is The War of a Million Cuts: The Struggle against the Delegitimization of Israel and the Jews, and the Growth of New Anti-Semitism (2015). His previous books include Europe’s Crumbling Myths: The Post-Holocaust Origins of Today’s Anti-Semitism; Judging the Netherlands: The Renewed Holocaust Restitution Process, 1997-2000; and The Abuse of Holocaust Memory: Distortions and Responses.