It would be possible to distinguish perhaps three periods in France’s policy in relation to the Middle East conflict. Under the Fourth Republic, there was a firm alliance between France and Israel explained by the memory of the Shoah and the shared opposition to Arab nationalism. That alliance led to the fiasco of the Suez intervention in 1956.
General de Gaulle ended nuclear cooperation with Israel. The turning point came in 1967. De Gaulle had assured Israel of France’s support if it were attacked by Arab countries, but had asked Tel Aviv not to start the war. However, it was the Jewish State that started the Six Day War and destroyed the Egyptian and Syrian armies. De Gaulle imposed an arms embargo on Israel. In November 1967, he declared that Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories would provoke repression and resistance that would be classified as terrorism and, therefore, would lead to violence. The end of the strategic alliance between Israel and France then occurred. Georges Pompidou, elected in 1969, aroused Israeli anger by supplying a hundred Mirage aircraft to Libya while maintaining an arms embargo on Israel. Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, elected in 1974 in the context of the oil crisis, approached the Gulf countries for economic reasons. In 1979, the Venice Declaration of the European Economic Community recognized the Palestinians’ right to governmental autonomy, a gesture that Israel denounced. The French Jewish community took sides against Giscard and in favor of Mitterrand. Elected in 1981, Mitterrand was considered a friend of Israel. Arab countries worried about a possible rupture in France’s Arab policy. However, continuity would prevail; and, in 1989, Mitterrand authorized the visit to France of Yasir Arafat, who declared “obsolete” the PLO letter calling for the destruction of Israel. French Jewish institutions strongly protested the visit. Mitterrand then declared that everyone could vote as they wanted, but that he was in charge of the interests of France and not those of a community. Jacques Chirac, elected in 1995, was well received by French Jews. He acknowledged the responsibility of the French state in the 1942 raid on the Paris Winter Velodrome. De Gaulle and Mitterrand, on the other hand, had blamed Vichy and not France. In December 1996, Chirac traveled to Jerusalem. The Israeli forces wanted to prevent him from walking freely through the city. Chirac then rebuked an Israeli soldier, which earned him great popularity in the Arab world. The Oslo agreements were torpedoed by the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin and the Hamas attacks, the election of Ariel Sharon, who came to power in 2001, and the resumption of the cycle of repression and terrorism. Chirac always maintained a relationship with Arafat, who died in France in 2004.
French boredom with the conflict and fear of being accused of being anti-Semitic if Israel is criticized
At the time, France was the only Western country defending Palestinian rights. This earned him great popularity in the Arab-Muslim world and in the countries of the South. The change came with Ariel Sharon’s visit to Paris in 2005. Israel withdrew from Gaza, although without prospects for peace with the Palestinians. The French president, weakened (due to health problems, the death of his friend Hariri in Lebanon and the failure of the 2005 referendum on the European Constitution), had to face a formidable campaign in the United States and Israel on French anti-Semitism, which would explain his activism in favor of Palestine. Chirac wanted to reconcile with the United States after the Iraq war. He stopped criticizing Israel and, in 2005, Ariel Sharon granted him the stamp of fight against anti-Semitism. At that time, France was less active in the Palestinian-Israeli issue. Nicolas Sarkozy, elected in 2007, is a politician very close to the French Jewish community, which voted for him en masse. Although he reiterated the need for peace and claimed that the continuation of the conflict fueled terrorism, he took no initiative. François Hollande, winner of the 2012 elections, included the recognition of Palestine in his program. However, in his first speech to the ambassadors, at the end of August 2012, he abandoned the idea. Emmanuel Macron, although he claimed to be a Gaullist-Mitterrandist during the election campaign, has not changed the trend. There is a weariness with the seemingly endless conflict and a fear of accusations of anti-Semitism if Israel is criticized. The quest for Western cohesion will hold France back on this issue. It is increasingly less popular in the countries of the South and in the Arab-Muslim world. France had been the most popular Western country in those places, but it has already lost that status.