Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Paris Wednesday for his first state visit to France since François Hollande took the presidential helm. The two attended a memorial ceremony in Toulouse on Thursday in honor of the victims of the brutal massacre at the Jewish school, Ozar HaTorah.
Hollande won May’s presidential elections with a slim lead over conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy. Many in Jerusalem and Paris have been speculating as to the future of Franco-Israeli relations under Hollande, particularly since he and Netanyahu could not be more different.
Whereas Sarkozy’s presidency initially promised a new chapter in the turbulent relations between the two countries—he’d publicly expressed undying support for Israel, and his party, the moderate right UMP, was ideologically compatible with Likud—he surprised everyone by taking a firm hand with Israel. The man once thought to be a good personal friend of Netanyahu went so far as to call him a “liar” in the famous private conversation with Barack Obama, when neither president realized his microphone was on. Yet, as a sign that Franco-Israeli relations were solid, Jerusalem did not take umbrage at the faux pas, at least not officially.
What saved Sarkozy’s relationship with Israel were his excellent relations with the large French Jewish community and his demonstrated support for the Jewish state. In 2011, for example, he proposed before the UN General Assembly that Palestine be recognized only as an “observer state” and not as a “member state” in UNESCO, causing him to butt heads with Washington.
The honeymoon, however, was all too brief, ending with the Oferet Yetsukah of December 2008-January 2009, which Sarkozy took as a betrayal from Israel.
So it’s little wonder that many are anxiously trying to read president Hollande. One thing that’s certain is that he won’t change France’s position on the Palestinian UN bid. He’s gone on record saying, “It is too early to grant Palestine membership as a state in the UN,” which was exactly Sarkozy’s stance. When Mahmoud Abbas visited Paris in June, he could not get a peep out of Hollande on the question of the Palestinian UN bid.
The fact is, Hollande won’t make any decisions that will embarrass his allies. He’s not adventurous at all. He’s been compared to an accountant and, since this is only his first year in government and he wants easy diplomatic success, he won’t rock the boat by defending something he knows the Americans would reject.
As for how he’ll fare with Israel’s right wing, which will likely continue to dominate the government after the January elections, it’s important to remember that in France—unlike in the U.S.—it’s traditionally the right-wingers who are pro-Arab. They have Gaullist tendencies ("politique arabe"), favoring a spirit of contestation against the yoke of hegemony, which is how some French citizens view Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians.
The French left, meanwhile, has been considered pro-Zionist ever since the Fourth Republic (1946-1958) developed very strong ties with Israel. It was, after all, the Socialist government of Guy Mollet who spearheaded the Franco-Anglo-Israeli front in the Suez War against Egypt in 1956.
Having never held a front-line government post before leap-frogging to the presidency, however, Hollande’s policies are something of a mystery to the international community. Distinguishing himself from Sarkozy, Hollande took a very moderate party-line stance on the Israeli-Palestinian question during his campaign: strong support for Israel, but strong condemnation of its settlement policies. One positive sign is that Hollande has been unflinching in pushing for tougher sanctions against Iran.
Two of Hollande’s political appointments bode well for the future of Franco-Israeli relations: Laurent Fabius, a tough-on-Iran friend of Israel and a moderate with respect to the Palestinian question, as Foreign Minister; and Jacques Audibert, a former overseer of Iran negotiations and a defender of Israel, as National Security Advisor.
But, truth be told, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is not a priority for France. The nation is more concerned with Libya’s peace transition and the violent Islamist clashes in Mali. Hollande's government is also mired in passing the most drastic budgetary reforms since the Second World War. The climbing taxes and decreasing public expenditures are unprecedented. And the eurozone crisis is a major preoccupation for everyone.
Netanyahu’s visit to Paris should be viewed in this chaotic political context. He’s met one of the least ideological and most pragmatic presidents in the history of the Fifth Republic. He won’t find a warm friend in Hollande. But he won't find a hostile government neither. France isn’t really expecting any grand gestures from Netanyahu so close to Israel’s elections. The meeting does, however, shed light on Hollande's views on Iran and on the fight against anti-Semitism. It also lays the basic groundwork between Hollande and Netanyahu, who will no doubt have to continue dealing with each other after Israel’s elections, which Bibi is bound to win.