Abbas and Hollande at the Élysée Palace in Paris, September 2014.
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—and there’s a continuation of colonial policies of repression.”

Beyond such domestic considerations, the vote matters also because France, a permanent member of the UN Security Council, has demonstrated a long-standing ambition—bordering on a psychological need—to be taken seriously as a player in the Middle East. It is, in the final account, a referendum on whether France really is the West’s truest champion of the Palestinian cause.

DOG AND PONY SHOW

During the 1950s and 1960s, France was in a rather different position. As a major Israeli ally, Paris supplied the Jewish state with guns, intelligence, and nuclear know-how. But following the outbreak of the 1967 Six-Day War, French President Charles de Gaulle realigned France’s Middle East policy in favor of the Arabs as a way of rebuilding regional influence in the wake of the Algerian crisis. Since then, every subsequent French government has prioritized the Palestinian cause. And all have gone to great lengths to brandish their pro-Palestinian credentials.

De Gaulle’s immediate successor, Georges Pompidou, used France’s dominant position inside the European Community in the early 1970s to pressure his partners on the issue. Later, President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing allowed the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to open an office in Paris, championed Palestinian national rights at the United Nations, and backed Palestinian self-determination during a visit to Kuwait in March 1980. 

President François Mitterrand entered the Élysée Palace with a reputation for being an old-school pro-Israeli socialist. But when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, he fought for the survival of PLO leader Yasir Arafat and his organization. French soldiers participated in the PLO’s evacuation of Beirut in the summer of 1982 and its flight from Tripoli in December 1983. The media-savvy Arafat had little trouble summing up the French role in a crisp sound bite: “From the rank of a friend,” he told journalists, “France has now become a brother.”

A decade later, in Jerusalem in 1996, President Jacques Chirac refused to speak with Israeli parliamentarians and rejected the protection of Israeli security personnel on a visit to the Arab part of the city. He also became the first Western head of state to meet Arafat in Ramallah. This gesture resonated so deeply that during the 2002 French presidential elections, Muslim audiences chanted, “Chirac to Ramallah, Chirac to Ramallah,” recalling the landmark meeting.

By the early years of this century, the Oslo peace process was dead and Chirac was one of many world leaders criticizing Israel for its aggressive response to the second intifada. In 2004, the same year that Chirac cancelled a planned visit from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, a terminally ill Arafat chose to spend his last dying months in a French hospital. Following his death, French soldiers loaded his coffin, draped with the Palestinian flag, onto a French military plane while an army band played the French and Palestinian national anthems. His remains were flown to Cairo. French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier followed close behind.

Although Chirac may have provided Arafat with an impressive sendoff, neither he nor any of his predecessors ever gave Arafat the one thing that he really wanted when he was alive: recognition of a Palestinian state. Despite their demonstrations of solidarity, none wanted to act alone and none had the requisite influence to carry their European partners with them. And little has changed since. French President Nicolas Sarkozy repeatedly promised to help bring about international recognition of a Palestinian state while in office. At the same time, he worked hard to repair relations with Israel, which had hit an all-time low under Chirac. As the two-year deadline for announcing a unilateral declaration of statehood drew near, Palestinian officials openly predicted that France would recognize their proposed state by the end of 2011.

But they were sorely mistaken. At the annual UN meeting of world leaders in New York in September 2011, with a U.S. veto looming and other EU nations still undecided on how to act, Sarkozy used his General Assembly speech to put forward his own proposal for Palestinian “observer status” as an alternative to a unilateral declaration of statehood.

Hollande has merely picked up where Sarkozy left off, further consolidating economic ties to Israel while openly expressing a general commitment to the Palestinian cause. That’s a far cry from his pledge, during the 2012 campaign, to bring about full international recognition of a Palestinian state. In response to criticism about Hollande’s inaction, his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, has tried to explain what that promise actually entails. The “government’s responsibility,” he has stated, “is not just to recognize a state—a Palestinian state. It’s to make sure that it’s recognized on an international scale.” Fabius has also said the French government will “not shirk its responsibilities” if peace talks fail to progress.

With the latest round of failed peace talks unlikely to resume anytime soon, Hollande is under pressure to follow through with that promise. He has expressed deep frustration with the situation, bemoaning the fact that negotiations have been going nowhere for “too long.” Yet in his most recent meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, in Paris last September, Hollande would not formally commit to recognizing Palestine. He was only willing to submit a draft resolution setting out a solution to the conflict before the UN Security Council.

The National Assembly vote is a response to Hollande’s failure to deliver on his pledge. But it is also a direct acknowledgment of the fact that, for decades now, French leaders have set self-imposed limits on their support for Palestinian statehood. In the mid-1970s, Giscard declared the Palestinians “an entity, a reality, a people” and expressed support for a Palestinian homeland but was unwilling to consider the logical outcome of those claims: a PLO-led state with juridical rights and duties under international law. It wasn’t for another six years, until March 1980, that he called publicly for Palestinian self-determination—widely understood as a euphemism for statehood. 

French officials hailed this as an unprecedented move that cemented France’s role at the forefront of the European fight for Palestinian national rights. In reality, it was nothing of the sort. In the previous year, the foreign ministers of West Germany and Belgium had made the same call. Ireland had gone a step further, explicitly using the word “state” in relation to Palestinian aspirations a month before Giscard’s declaration.

France was also hesitant at another key moment, in November 1988, when the PLO’s leadership declared an independent Palestinian state without defined borders but with Jerusalem as its capital. The Mitterrand government had spent much of the first half of the decade fighting to save the PLO from Israel in Lebanon. But it still couldn’t bring itself to join the 55 Muslim, Third World, and nonaligned countries that recognized the PLO’s largely symbolic proclamation of statehood. Foreign Minister Roland Dumas explained that his government had “no difficulty” recognizing a Palestinian state “in principle” but that it was impossible to recognize a state that “does not dispose of a defined territory.” As a consolation prize, Mitterrand invited Arafat on his first official visit to Paris.

PRIORITY PROBLEM

There are two ways to explain the gap between French rhetoric and actions. The first is that France has been constrained by the hesitancy of its allies and by its long-standing commitment to a joint EU foreign policy. In 2002, during the lead-up to Palestinian elections, French Foreign Minister Hubert Védrine put forward a novel and controversial peace proposal. It began with what was long considered an endpoint—the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the recognition of Gaza as Palestinian territory, and the negotiation of a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. 

The plan was dismissed in Washington, watered down in Berlin, and blocked by London, where the government of British Prime Minister Tony Blair vetoed every French attempt to build support within the EU. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer eventually sidelined Védrine and pushed a less ambitious version of the French proposal that dropped the French call for the immediate establishment of a Palestinian state and instead provided a timetable to establish an emergency government, elections, and a provisional state. It wasn’t so much the content of the original French proposal that was problematic. In fact, in late 2004, soon after Arafat’s death, Blair even considered putting forward a similar plan himself. The real problem was that the proposal came from France.

This leads to the second explanation: successive French governments have failed to gain traction for their efforts because they have been unwilling to work with the United States, hostile to Israel, and indifferent to the views of European allies. Instead, they have opted to push ahead with unilateral plans in the service of their own agendas and as a way of consolidating France’s status as the leading independent European actor in the Middle East.

This pattern began with de Gaulle, who didn’t bother to consult his European counterparts before he abandoned France’s pro-Israel policy in 1967. Giscard likewise didn’t inform French allies before calling for a Palestinian homeland in 1974, nor did Mitterrand before he publicly linked the Palestine problem to a peaceful end to the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in 1991. Chirac, for his part, made surprise moves in other areas, resuming nuclear testing and reneging on past French commitments to European border rules. And he did the same in the Middle East, despite presenting his government’s activism in the region as an expression of the EU role there.

As Chirac told an audience at Cairo University in April 1996, his ultimate goal was to improve Franco-Arab ties, making Arab policy as central to French policy as it had been in earlier times. Less than a month later, Chirac sent Foreign Minister Hervé de Charette on a round of shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem, Damascus, and Beirut to promote a French peace plan. Distrustful of French intentions, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher followed de Charette to the region. When the two held a joint press conference in Beirut, de Charette made sure it was conducted in French, leaving Christopher oblivious to the proceedings until a quick-thinking French-speaking State Department official bounded onto the stage and started translating in his boss’s ear. 

Although the French peace proposal ultimately came to naught, this brief linguistic victory meant that France could claim, at least momentarily, to be the key Western power in the Middle East. Washington wasn’t happy, of course, and Israel accused France of sowing “confusion.” But the real anger came from Europe; the Chirac government had not only launched a Middle East peace plan without going through the proper EU channels but had not even informed its closest partners about its plans.

More recently, Sarkozy’s September 2011 UN speech stirred a different kind of resentment on the continent. European leaders accused him of going public with a peace proposal based on ideas he had lifted from confidential and ongoing EU discussions with the Palestinians—all to improve France’s image abroad and his own political fortunes in upcoming presidential elections at home. Sarkozy, like Chirac before him, would later justify his own commitment to Middle East peacemaking in European terms. “I want Europe to take back ownership of important political dossiers such as this,” he said. 

Hollande doesn’t share Chirac’s or Sarkozy’s flare for the dramatic. But he, too, has characterized French action on Palestine as a European imperative. In a recent speech to French diplomats, he acknowledged the “decisive” role that Washington had to play in finding peace but also urged the EU to action. “Europe’s role is as important,” he said. “It must act more.”

Ever since de Gaulle, the Palestinians have also hoped that Europe, with France in the lead, would act more boldly and that French recognition of a Palestinian state would be a “first step” toward Europe-wide recognition, as the Palestinian Ma’an News Agency put it recently. But having watched from the sidelines for years as Paris pursued national interests in the Middle East under the cover of promoting a coordinated European policy, European leaders have been unwilling to follow France’s lead.

In turn, no French government has been willing to go it alone and meet the key Palestinian demand—full recognition of a Palestinian state without defined borders but with Jerusalem as its capital. The upshot has been paralysis in French policy on Palestine completely at odds with the narrative successive French governments have spun. As the chances for further direct peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians fade quickly, as more and more of France’s European partners take action on the issue of Palestinian statehood at a national level, and as French parliamentarians prepare to vote, this reality is finally clear for all to see.

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  • RORY MILLER is Professor of Government at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Qatar.
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