Empty Promises

Why France Won't Deliver for the Palestinians

Abbas and Hollande at the Élysée Palace in Paris, September 2014. Gonzalo Fuentes / Courtesy Reuters

Tomorrow, the French National Assembly is set to vote on a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state, a step already taken by the Swedish government, the British and Spanish parliaments, and the Irish Senate. Yet even with several other European countries looking to do the same, a “yes” vote would have little practical effect: it would be nonbinding, dismissed by the United States, and rejected by Israel. If such formalities really did matter, then a Palestinian state, which 134 countries have recognized, would already exist.

How the National Assembly votes and how the government of French President François Hollande responds does matter in other ways—although not so much for Israel or Palestine as for France. The country is home to the largest Jewish population in Europe and the third largest in the world after Israel and the United States. Anti-Semitic attacks almost doubled in the first half of 2014 compared with the same period in 2013, and Jews are leaving the country for Israel in record numbers. This year, more new immigrants have arrived in Israel from France than from any other country in the world.

France also has Europe’s largest Muslim population, which is feeling increasingly restless and marginalized as well. The far-right National Front party, with its program of tough anti-immigrant measures, has made sizable gains in local elections across the country. Anger over such policies has only compounded a sense of injustice when it comes to Palestine.

Last summer, at the height of the Gaza crisis, tensions reached a fever pitch when thousands took to the streets of Paris and several other French cities. France’s ban on anti-Israeli marches and the violent clashes that ensued between the police and demonstrators recalled the infamous street fights of the early 1960s, in which hundreds of North African immigrants died protesting for Algerian independence. As one organizer of the recent demonstrations explained, “The Arab, the Muslim, and the black [are] going to public and expressing solidarity with a people under siege—

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