Vive la France!
The greatest threat facing the world today is Islamic terrorism. If this is not always be appreciated by the White House it is fully comprehended by French President François Hollande. He has demonstrated this by his action in Mali in January 2013 when he sent French troops to oppose the Islamic forces that had tried to seize control of the north of Mali. He has displayed an equally robust policy against threats of terrorism in Libya, Syria, and now Iran.
In a speech in Paris on November 13, 2013 French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius remarked cuttingly, if politely, "The United States gives the impression of no longer wanting to get drawn into crises that do not correspond to its new version of its national interest." Fabius informed the French Policy Planning Staff that it was French policy to try and steer the course of history to the extent of its capabilities.
President Hollande illustrated that policy in November 2013 by his opposition at the first round of talks between six major powers and Iran to the undue eagerness of President Obama and the other leaders to reach a diplomatic solution about Iran's uranium enrichment program. The proposed compromise formula was to include relief from the economic sanctions on Iran that have adversely affected Iran's economy, especially its oil exports and the increase in inflation.
France has insisted that Iran's nuclear program is a menace not only to Israel, but also to the Middle East region and to the whole world. Therefore Iran must stop continuing to work on the plutonium reactor at Arak, and downgrade its stockpile of highly-enriched uranium. Economic sanctions against Iran must be maintained until this menace is removed.
Between France and Israel there have been deep and historic ties as well as some episodes varying in harmony and warmth. Speaking on arrival at Israel's Ben-Gurion airport at the beginning of his three day visit to the area on November 17, 2013 Hollande said, "I will always remain a friend of Israel."
France formally recognized the State of Israel and January 12, 1949, and supported its admission into the United Nations. France was Israel's main supplier of weapons until 1962 when French troops withdrew from Algeria. It is relevant today that the main Israeli negotiator in this arms policy was Shimon Peres, always a Francophile and currently President of Israel. France sent Mirages, an advanced aircraft at the time, aircraft that became the model for the Israeli Kfir fighter aircraft. Recognizing the threat posed by President Gamel Abdel Nasser, who nationalized the Suez Canal in 1956, France allied in a joint attack with Israel and Britain on Egypt, that led to the Israeli capture of the Sinai Peninsula.
The entente was not so cordial in 1967. Charles de Gaulle as president of France had welcomed Prime Minister David Ben Gurion four times, and had once referred to Israel as France's friend and ally. But in pique over Israeli's not following his advice which was not to start hostilities, de Gaulle in his press conference on November 27, 1967 referred to Jews as "an elite people, self-assured and domineering." De Gaulle ended French governmental support of Israel's nuclear program. He imposed a ban on French supply of weapons of an "offensive nature" to the Middle East, a ban that in reality applied only to Israel.
Since de Gaulle, French presidents have varied in policy towards Israel. On his visit to Jerusalem in March 1982 François Mitterrand, the first president in office to visit Israel, spoke of French solidarity and friendship with Israel. He also called for the establishment of a Palestinian state though one that would recognize Israel's right to exist. Similarly, President Nicholas Sarkozy in his visit in 2008 expressed warm sentiments, though he later made an uncomplimentary remark about Netanyahu.
The three-day visit of François Hollande is a important step in affirming a warm relationship in spite of some political differences. He was accompanied by a very large party, including 40 business leaders, among whom were the heads of Alstom Transport company, and Bonygues Construction company, and a fleet of journalists as well as political figures. At the formal dinner hosted by Netanyahu an Israeli chanteuse sang the songs of Edith Piaf.
France has long had political and economic relations with Arab countries, especially the Gulf countries and including most recently a 1 billion euro defense contract with Saudi Arabia which is also investing heavily in sectors of French industry and agriculture. Politically, it has been concerned with Arab affairs: it has tried to protect the Maronites in Lebanon; France initiated in June 2003 the European Union dialogue with Tehran; it supported Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war; France voted in November 202 for Palestine to be accepted as a non-member observer state at the United Nations.
Hollande's visit in November to Ramallah as well as Jerusalem was a demonstration of a policy of "equilibrium." Hollande uttered a few words in both Hebrew and Arabic. He visited Yad Vashem and laid stones on the graves of Theodor Herzl, Yitzhak Rabin, and the victims who were murdered in the Jewish school in Toulouse in March 2012 by an Islamist terrorist. Ten miles away at Ramallah, he visited the grave of Yasser Arafat who died in a hospital near Paris on November 11, 2004.
Hollande has called for a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian issue, which would include the establishment of a Palestinian state, Israeli stoppage of settlement building in the disputed territories, and the sharing of Jerusalem in peace and security. This French policy is understandable in the context of France's domestic and international concerns. It has had a long history of relations with Lebanon, Syria, and the Maghreb countries, especially Algeria. It also has both the largest Jewish population in Europe, and a large and increasing Muslim population, which some estimate to be about 8 million.
Even recognizing that political differences still exist between France and Israel, especially on the issue of settlements, the ties are strong and the countries are bound by common anxiety to the overriding issue, Islamic terrorism, and the threat of an Iran, infatuated with power in more senses than one. François Hollande recognizes this and, adapting the immortal words of Margaret Thatcher to George H.W. Bush in August 1990, understands that "this is no time for France to go wobbly."
Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East