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BDS is the French exception to international boycotts

Image of a BDS rally [McGill Daily/Flickr]
Image of a BDS rally [McGill Daily/Flickr]

French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron said on 24 January, “Boycotting Israel has been condemned by France and there’s no reason why we should discuss the matter again.” By sheer coincidence, on the same day, a French Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement activist appeared in a court in Metz because an Israeli pharmaceutical company, TEVA, blamed BDS for encouraging French pharmacists not sell their generic medicines.

Why is France the only country in Europe — perhaps in the world — apart from Israel, to sue BDS activists? The BDS campaign is worldwide and takes different forms, all of which are non-violent.

Like Israel, France has started to criminalise BDS activities, even though there is a long history of international boycotts; against nuclear tests, for example, or the US invasion of Iraq, and the government in Paris never targeted those calling for such boycotts. Even in France, some calls for boycotts were well-supported; the anti-Apartheid movement against South Africa, for example, and against the military junta in Myanmar when it was in power. So why is France taking this stand against the anti-Israel BDS movement?

According to historian and Middle East expert Dominique Vidal, this can be explained by the size of the Jewish community in France, the largest outside Israel and the US, as well as its large North African community. “Israel-Palestine is thus a sensitive topic,” said Vidal. Indeed, the French government is determined to prevent the conflict from being imported into France. During Israel’s military offensive against Gaza in 2014, this was one of the arguments used to ban any demonstration in Paris in support of the Palestinians. It was, however, swept aside by BDS activist and former co-president of the French Jewish Union for Peace Jean-Guy Grielsamer: “What fuels anti-Semitism is banning BDS,” he countered. “It also assumes that all Jewish people are supporting Israel.” The number of French Jewish activists involved in the BDS movement “is not insignificant,” he added.

Another BDS activist in France, Imen Habib, explained what BDS does: “BDS spreads the call initiated by Palestinian civil society inspired by the fight against apartheid in South-Africa. We invite everyone to look at our guidelines where we outline that a boycott is not an end in itself; it is used against an apartheid regime and we are not targeting kosher products.” The BDS struggle, she insisted, is for human rights. “We are not racists; we are fighting against racism.”

For Dominique Vidal, if it is more complicated to develop any BDS campaign in France compared to other European countries it is because of all the pressure placed on both left- and right-wing governments, which is not the case elsewhere. Such pressure comes from the Israeli state itself and any institution that supports the same viewpoint, such as the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (RCFJI), for instance, which does not deny that it defends Israeli policies.

“BDS campaigns were getting bigger in France,” explained Vidal, “then the political pressure started with a dinner organised by the RCFJI in Bordeaux in February 2010. That’s where François Fillon lied blatantly by claiming that it was clear that some people wanted to boycott kosher products.” Michèle Alliot-Marie, the then Minister of Domestic Affairs, spread that fake news. “Saying that there’s a boycott on kosher products instead of Israeli products took the debate to a religious level instead of remaining purely political. Alliot-Marie spread this despite telling parliament a few months’ earlier that there was no kosher product boycott.”

A ministerial order dated 12 February 2010 has been used as a base to all legal actions that have been taken against BDS. Alliot-Marie signed the order telling prosecutors to give “a firm response” to “all calls for a boycott of Israeli products.” The legal reason invoked is either discrimination or racial hatred.

Initially, the issue of BDS was linked to freedom of speech. However, the French Supreme Court, the highest jurisdiction in France, ruled on 20 October, 2015 that simply calling for a boycott of Israeli products would be illegal in France and punishable by law, with a fine of up to €28,000 for those found guilty.

The ruling affected the iconic trial of the “Mulhouse 12”, who were fined heavily for calling for a boycott of Israeli goods while standing in front of a supermarket. Although originally acquitted, they were found guilty by the Supreme Court on the grounds that they encouraged “discrimination, hatred or violence against a person or a group of people on grounds of their ethnic origin, nationality, race or religion”.

According to Habib, pro-Israel pressure has created what is without doubt a real French legal exception. “Whenever BDS activists are being acquitted, the public prosecutor’s office — which is the State — has systematically brought an appeal,” she pointed out. “However, we have noticed that the majority of the accusations have been closed by the public prosecutor’s office itself. Amongst all the cases that had come before the courts the majority ended up with an acquittal, until the Supreme Court rule. There’s a real exception. It goes all the way back to the ministerial order for this, which doesn’t target the activists who boycott China in support of Tibet. This order is politically-motivated because it is only applied to Israel.”

Activists brought an action before the European Court on the grounds that article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights lays down the principle of freedom of speech. They are worried that, in France, foreign suppliers and manufacturers rights now take precedence over political freedom; that is the implication of the Supreme Court decision. The economic freedom pleaded by the court is not threatened at all; having the right to boycott goods is simply consumers exercising their freedom of choice; it does not, the activists argue, hinder the economic freedom of any Israeli suppliers and manufacturers.

In the meantime, only boycotts decided by the French government — in other words “embargos” —are legal until the ECHR gives its long-awaited decision. In October last year, Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, said that freedom of speech as it is defined by the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights should also be applied to information and ideas that ‘”shock or bother the State or any other part of the population”. “The EU,” added Mogherini, “firmly supports freedom of speech and of association… which includes BDS actions.”

Further evidence that the Supreme Court ruling did not close this hot topic came on 10 December, the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, when around 200 European legal experts signed an open letter against the ever more frequent attempts to stifle the BDS movement. Two-thirds of the signatories are very well-respected French citizens. “The question is not about knowing if we approve the goals or methods of BDS,” they wrote, “but in order to protect Israel, an exception to freedom of speech, a cornerstone of human rights, is allowed. States that prohibit BDS actions jeopardise this fundamental right.”

The fact of the matter remains that no subsequent minister of home affairs in France has tried to revoke Alliot-Marie’s order: “The attitude of Christiane Taubira, former Minister of Justice during Hollande’s presidency, has been outrageous,” argued Vidal. “When she was appointed, associations brought to her this Goebbels-type order so that she could revoke it but she didn’t. Why is that?”

The BDS campaign points out that Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestine are illegal according to international law, and violate a number of UN resolutions; the settlements have also been condemned by France. Thus, importing and exporting goods to or from companies located within settlements constitutes a violation of international law.

Despite this French exception, or maybe because of it, the BDS campaign keeps on getting bigger in France. Its successes include campaigns against Veolia and Orange. In Europe, pension funds and banks have stopped investing in Israel. A study carried out by Rand Corporation calculated the loss caused to Israel by BDS at $4.7 billion per year. Israel thus views BDS as a “strategic threat” and its intelligence agencies have a special “BDS team”.

“We have started a campaign for an arms embargo against Israel,” said Imen Habib. “France had planned to buy drones from Israeli company Elbit Systems for a total of €100 million. Eventually, the government changed its mind and bought them from the French Thales Group instead.”

The BDS cultural campaign has also been successful, she added, with artists such as Vanessa Paradis and Peter Brook being convinced not to perform in Israel. “Moreover, four cities have voted to support BDS and not serve any product in their staff canteens that might come from the illegal settlements.”

French public opinion seems to favour BDS activities and a Palestinian State. For Dominique Vidal, there has been a clear evolution in such thought across the years. In 1948, people were mainly in favour of the creation of an Israeli State. “The shift started to happen in 1982, with the Sabra and Shatila massacre during the war in Lebanon,” he explained. “The first Intifada in 1987 shocked the public [in France] when they saw how brutal the Israeli army was. Since 2000, public opinion has been more inclined to listen to the Palestinian narrative. Between 70 to 75 per cent of the people think that a Palestinian State has to be created. This has become very complex for Israel to deal with, since the majority of the public are now in favour of BDS.”

At the same time, Vidal has noticed that the State is becoming more and more in favour of Israel. This started clearly with Nicolas Sarkozy; François Hollande and his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, have continued to give massive support to Israel.

The day before he went to visit Israel in May last year, Valls said: “The government [in Paris] is clearly against any BDS actions. However, trying to ban it or restrict freedom of speech would be counterproductive.” He claimed that criticism of Israel has moved on to “anti-Zionism” and from there to “anti-Semitism”.

“During the Hollande presidency,” concluded Imen Habib, “the authorities have been allowed to interfere in citizens’ freedom of speech and movement.” She gave as an example the arrest of a woman during a pro-feminism demonstration because she was wearing a BDS t-shirt. “BDS is the target of repression. We reply to this by intensifying our campaign in France.”

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  • Gary Lawrence

    In the Israeli Prison Service 48 per cent of Palestinian child detainees and 86 per cent of adults are unlawfully transferred and detained in prisons inside Israel in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. This is a clear and unambiguous challenge to the rule of law, military authorities have now informed UNICEF that this policy will not be changed.

    Four years since a delegation of prominent British lawyers published a report on the treatment of Palestinian children under Israeli military law. The Foreign Office funded report found undisputed evidence that the military detention system violated at least six articles under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and two articles under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

  • Gary Lawrence

    Chivalry is a word the IDF KNOW NOT. Consider an IDF soldier fully dressed in protective wear and a female Palestinian carrying a knife, supposedly, does he take the knife from her, remember these guys created krav maga, no he shoots her dead. And if she isn’t dead they let her die there unattended. Or how about wrestling down a 10-year-old boy for throwing rocks when they entered his village to take away someone’s father to be put in prison for life without trial or recourse. Cowards is a much more descriptive word. Israel must fear justice and rid itself of Netanyahu. Only US politicians and Israel can deny the brutal occupation of the Palestinians. You can check out this cowardly IDF soldier on Youtube who takes from a little crying Palestinian girl, her bicycle and throws it in the bushes. Please wake up America, we cannot continue to provide cover for the Apartheid Israeli war Machine.

  • Gary Lawrence

    The Palestinians have done nothing to deserve the unbelievable violence brought upon them. If only the U N would do more than verbally condemn Israel. I believe that BDS is going to be the start of pressure on a criminal state like Israel. For Benjamin Netanyahu, he is guilty of war crimes, PROSECUTE AND EXECUTE.? Wake up, the IDF breaks into homes of Palestinians, not to rape, but to murder, torture, and tear families apart. A 12 year-old-boy maybe shot down dead for throwing stones, but the future,” light to the gentiles”(from her own mouth), can do no wrong, and a settler is not even charged with a crime of any serious time. Open your MIND, accountability has lost its place in the United States and the United Nations. I must conclude from the latest report by the Quartet of Nations, the same as a personal task for them. That is, make sure there is no real accountability. Thus Trump has only to continue the Obama agenda over the last 8 years. Does anyone expect Jared Kushner to be an honest broker? I’ve said it many times and it is rock solid for the most part, “Where is the champion of oversight on war crimes and atrocities? I would never want to be called anti-semitic, but I still believe he was raised in a Jewish family and from his outright support of Israel and silence to everything they are doing on a daily basis, Deputy US Ambassador to the UN David Pressman’s comment, “We need a United Nations that includes Israel, that brings Israel closer, not one that systematically pushes Israel away.”, flies in the face of reality.” It doesn’t fly in the face of what we can expect from Jared Kushner.

  • Gary Lawrence

    Rachel Corrie was murdered (BY AND IDF SOLDIER,DRIVING A BULL DOSSER)AS MANY OTHER innocent people. Israel and our political leaders hide the truth, a conscience is shared by every human being on this planet.

    WAR CRIMES, COVERED UP BY THE US, AND KERRY WHO STILL STANDS AND PRETENDS TO HAVE CREDIBILITY AS AN HONEST BROKER IN THE WORLD, FAR FROM IT. America must realize the need to be an honest broker, honest member the nations of the world, and as a friend to Israel, honesty is the best policy. It is way, way past time to stop the apartheid state of Israel. Our politicians shouldn’t wait till the great minds of the world join BDS, minds like Steven Hawking, to acknowledge the facts on the ground are real. Occupation and extrajudicial killings, even of American citizens, who HAD more courage than Kerry or Obama, will never be stopped without boots on the ground to stop Israel’s theft, murder, and terror by the IDF AND SETTLERS.

  • Gary Lawrence

    The nations of the world have shown that in their minds, “MIGHT MAKES RIGHT”, with its inability to punish Israel, in any manner at all. The insight by North Korea has proven right. They are 2nd to Israel in human rights abuses and have successfully developed the bomb and soon the ability to reach us in the United States.
    The Palestinians don’t even have weapons to defend themselves. A slaughter is very accurate description of the IDF and OPERATION Protective Edge. NORTH KOREA CREEPS CLOSER AND CLOSER AND NETANYAHU KILLS MORE AND MORE.
    Democrats can’t even use the word occupation. AIPAC is so powerful,
    most candidates shudder at what their support or lack of can mean to their future.

    • Fasdunkle

      “They are 2nd to Israel in human rights abuses”

      Who is else is in your league table?

  • Gary Lawrence

    I’m for BDS, but my local market sold jars of Israeli fish balls,$8.50 each, for $1.99,on clearance. I bought 6 jars with no regrets except one must believe if the Palestinians were allowed to fish, theirs would be much cheaper, to begin with. Does it exemplify the true reality that the occupation is about money now, and down the line for Netanyahu, and the Israelis? I think it is fair to ask when did killing, and imprisoning Palestinians become part of the business of income for Israel? Just like in the movie, The Island, we see a man and a privileged people abusing what has been given to them.

  • Fasdunkle

    “it’s a genocide”


    • Gary Lawrence

      You’re a clown? NO EVIDENCE NEEDED.

      • Fasdunkle

        That’s because there is none