In less than one month, French President, Emmanuel Macron, surprised almost everybody within France, the European Union, the Arab world and certainly the left, right and France’s Middle East policy watchers. The latest group surprised and equally upset is France’s professional diplomatic community.
The energetic French President, nicknamed “the President of the rich” by his own people, pulled his first surprise on his visit to Israel on 24 October, while briefing the press next to his host, Benjamin Netanyahu. The Prime Minister showered his guest with gratitude before telling him, without actually looking at him, “Emmanuel we rely on your continued support” after, of course, repeating some of his, now, classic line of controversial unverified claim that “Hamas burned babies alive”.
To which his guest responded by first expressing his country’s solidarity with Israel and its right to defend itself while fighting terrorism. He then said that “we should build a regional and international coalition to battle against terrorist groups that threaten us all.” He went on to explain that such a coalition is in “the interest of Israel”—a sentence he will later repeat for a completely different meaning, while pulling his second surprise coming a bit later. Of course, Hamas has never threatened France – or any other country, for that matter – as it battles the Israeli brutal Occupation of Palestinian land and lays siege on the Gaza Strip, denying its population medicine, fuel, food, shelter and electricity. Over 11,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed, so far, including over 5000 children.
Mr. Macron never elaborated on his controversial proposal, which he said had been discussed with Netanyahu; however, the latter never mentioned it. The idea of an anti-Hamas international coalition was dead on arrival just hours after it was suggested and never referred to again, except to ridicule the French President as being more loyal than the king in his expression of support for Israel, as if it is fighting a superpower and not a few thousand, according to most estimates, of fighters it calls “terrorists”.
The surprising part here is the fact that such pro-Israeli bias has never been part of the French foreign policy towards the Palestinian issue. The French diplomatic community was upset that their President is actually doing foreign policy without consulting the Foreign Ministry, jeopardising their work in the region. Many Arabs, including the Palestinian themselves, have for years considered France to be their friend and its approach towards Palestine is balanced, with emphasis on Palestinian rights.
The former late president, Jacques Chirac, not only pushed for the two state solution formula but also supported Palestinians; no wonder he was called “Le grand ami des Palestiniens” – the great friend of the Palestinians. During his 1996 visit to Israel, he caused a diplomatic stir when he shouted at the Israeli security accompanying him while touring the old city of Jerusalem. He did not want Israeli security near him, in line with the United Nations declared principle that East Jerusalem is Occupied Territory and Israel has no right to annex it.
In the wider Middle East, France was a strong critic of the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq and stood up to what it considered to be ill-guided US policy. Mr. Chirac, and all of his predecessor presidents after the WWII, charted a foreign policy course independent of the US, despite its bullying tactics. In April 1986, as prime minster of France under the late president Mitterrand, he is reported to have alerted the late Gaddafi that the US was about to bomb Libya after the late president Mitterrand refused US’ request for its fighter jets, heading to Libya, to fly over French territory. President Chirac, personally, decided to welcome the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, as a “state guest” of France and oversaw his medical treatment when Mr. Arafat’s health deteriorated in 2004 and, later, visited him in the military hospital outside Paris.
With this history of an independent Middle East approach, to be ignored by President Macron as he tries to further align France’s Middle East policy with that of the US, he has not only angered French diplomats but also prompted Palestinians to take to the streets of Ramallah to protest against his visit to Ramallah after he left Israel—unusual for a French president to be publically scorned in any Arab country.
Mr. Macron’s second surprise came in a BBC World News interview in which he called the killing of thousands of Palestinian civilians “unjustified”. He urged Israel to stop the killing of children in the Gaza Strip by saying “De facto – today, civilians are bombed – de facto. These babies, these ladies, these old people are bombed and killed. So there is no reason for that and no legitimacy. So we do urge Israel to stop.” He called for pauses in the fighting that should become a formal ceasefire, describing cessation of hostility as being “in the interest of Israel” and it is the only “solution” to the current war and it is between Israel and Hamas. He was slammed by top Israeli officials, including the Prime Minister, who accused him of making “a serious mistake factually and morally”. President Macron tried damage control by calling his Israeli counterpart to reassure him of France’s support.
Many French Middle East policy observers believe the chaotic positions taken by President Macron reflect his lack of vision and further illustrate France’s diminishing role on the world stage. They point to the near complete collapse of French Africa policy, which has not only humiliated France but forced it to vacate three former colonies in a matter of a few years, leaving a vacuum being filled by others, including Russia.
However, Macron’s near U-turn on the war in the Gaza Strip has encouraged other European countries to follow suit. We have seen a growing number of countries calling for ceasefire, protection of medical facilities and more humanitarian access to the besieged Palestinian enclave. No doubt that public anger across Europe has forced governments to adopt a more balanced approach to the war and, when France, a leading EU member, changes course it tends to echo across the continent.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.