French Perceptions of the Middle East

By May 31, 2005

BESA Center Perspectives Paper No. 6

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY: French-Israeli relations have significantly deteriorated since September 2000. However, it seems that some recent developments may change this pattern. The present article analyzes France’s main Middle Eastern perceptions, their application to the Iraqi and the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts and the contradictions between the perceptions and their application. It presents the vast bilateral French-Israeli contacts initiated recently, stressing the mutual advantages to both countries, nevertheless recommending Israeli’s prudence.

In December 2004, when Gerard Araud, the French ambassador to Israel, complained in an interview to the Israeli radio station “Galei Tzahal”, that the Israelis developed an anti-French neurosis, Israeli-French relations seemed to mark a new level of deterioration. The ambassador’s comment triggered a furious Israeli public response, loaded with overwhelming emotions, passions, frustrations and accusations, which have unfortunately characterized French-Israeli relations in the past five years. These antagonistic emotions were a result of the wide spread belief that France supported the Palestinians one-sidedly since the beginning of the present “intifada”, causing enormous political damage to Israel.

However, it seems that some recent developments may change the pattern described above. The present article analyzes France’s main Middle Eastern perceptions and their application to the Iraqi and Israeli-Palestinian conflicts, as well as the impact of these perceptions on French politics. The following section of the analysis indicates the potential advantages of the developments in France’s approach to the interests of both countries.

French Perceptions of the Middle East

French perceptions of the Middle East were elaborated during many years of French presence in the region. They combine a rational analysis of French interests in the region with nostalgic aspirations concerning the glorious image of the past French Empire.

The most basic French assumption is that international and regional conflicts should be solved through dialogue and not by the unilateral use of force. Accordingly, the French insist on the centrality of the United Nations in the management of conflicts, stressing the importance of international law and international agreements.

Nevertheless, the French are not naive and they are fully aware of the military threats that face the world and the region. They often stress the urgent task of confronting terror and the fight against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. The French perceive the fight against terror in the context of united coordinated efforts of all the democratic states. In addition, the French ministry of defense elaborated plans like “Vigipirate”, which is a security plan aimed at preventing terrorist attacks in France.

Another central French conviction is that military means alone cannot solve the problem of terror. The French believe that the use of power is inefficient in fighting terror and that the main focus must be on the social and political processes that create this phenomenon. Accordingly, defeating terror can be achieved in the long term only by political and economic development to eliminate the root causes of terror.

The political development is perceived in the context of democratic regimes, which will not be imposed by the Western states, but adapted by the people of the Middle East according to their specific historical circumstances, considerations and mentality.

The economic development, though, requires a more active part of the rich industrial countries, which should contribute to the improvement of conditions of life in the underdeveloped countries. The French, indeed, allocate a relatively significant part of the budget of the “Quai d’Orsay” to foreign aide. Thus, they intend to increase the foreign aide from 0.44 percent of the French GNP (Gross National Product) in the year 2005 to 0.50 percent in 2007 and to 0.70 percent in 2012.

Evidently, the French are not motivated solely by philanthropic and moral considerations, even though they tend to present their policy as such. France regards its global activity mainly as a means of strengthening French influence in the international arena and especially in the Middle East. Equally, the French hope that the creation of a strong European Union, in which they enjoy an influential position, will balance US supremacy in world affairs in general and in the Middle East in particular.

However, France often denies that the creation of the EU was meant to be a tool for challenging US power. Accordingly, France acknowledges time and again its historical debts to the US and its attachment to the transatlantic alliance through common values (democracy, human rights) and common interests (the fight against terror). At the same time, France repeatedly stresses that the alliance is not incompatible with political disagreements.

The Iraqi Crisis

The disagreements between France and the US turned into a severe crisis, which reached its climax with the Iraqi war in 2003.

The French justify their refusal to join the coalition, created by the US, by arguing that the diplomatic process to solve the crisis was not sufficiently exhausted. They claim that they were right in their diagnosis and predictions, that the invasion was a severe mistake, which aggravated the problems and created new ones. They argue that the present raging terror in Iraq proves that their warnings were justified, especially in light of the fact that no mass destruction weapons were found in Iraq.

Yet, the reelection of President Bush to a second term, the considerable success of the democratic elections in Iraq, the appeasing visits to Europe of President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, compounded with France’s desire to play an influential role in the reconstruction of Iraq, changed the attitude of the French. They responded positively to the proposition of President Bush to participate in the training of Iraqi forces of security, albeit not on Iraqi soil. Additionally, they agreed to cancel the Iraqi debts.

The crisis in Iraq exposed a deep contradiction regarding the French perceptions: they could not reconcile their vision of advancing democracy and human rights with their opposition to the throwing out of the despotic and oppressive regime of Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, the French frequent calls to end the bloodshed in Iraq were not followed by relevant proposals or commitments which might improve the situation. Despite these contradictions, it seems that no essential harm was caused to the French moral stance in the international public opinion – France continues to enjoy the prestigious image of a state that fights against the use of power in international relations as well as for the freedom and rights of oppressed peoples.

The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

The contradictions between the vision and perceptions, on the one hand, and their application, on the other hand, are evident in the French attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well. The French supported Yassir Arafat as the elected leader of the Palestinians, whom they saw as representing the legal aspirations of the Palestinians to an independent state. Their support of Arafat granted them an incontestable image as the main defenders of the Palestinian cause. Yet, as in the case of Saddam Hussein, they ignored the fact that Arafat was a despotic leader, who brought disaster upon his own people through his erroneous decisions and corrupt management of public affairs. Additionally, France chose to disregard Arafat’s involvement in terror activities against thousands of innocent Israeli civilians. France’s support of Arafat deteriorated significantly the Israeli-French relations.

The transatlantic partial reconciliation had implications for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: France relatively softened its political criticism of Israel, who is perceived as a US ally. It might also result in a more active mediation by France and the EU in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in cooperation with the US.

Recently, France adopted a new formal line, according to which the past divergences with Israel should be swept aside. It explains that the new window of opportunities, created by the disengagement plan, the death of Arafat and the election of Abu Mazen as the democratically chosen leader of the Palestinian Authority, should be fully exploited for the advancing of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

France’s proposals for the solution of the conflict (which reflect the EU’s perceptions as well) include the implementation of the Road Map plan, and the creation of a viable Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel and performing deep reforms of its security forces and regime.

The French believe that only an international involvement in the peace process can interrupt the vicious circle of bloodshed. They stress that France and Europe should have a very active role in the mediation between the two sides.

France often uses the example of the EU as a proof and a model for the possibility of solving long complicated conflicts, as was the case of the French–German conflict in the past.

France believes that the EU has both the experience and the capability to advance the peace process. Moreover, the EU has also the moral right to interfere, since the conflict threatens not only the stability of the region but also of the entire world.

In order to be accepted by Israel as a relevant mediator, France claims that it is sensitive to Israel’s security concerns, which can only be guaranteed by peace. As a matter of fact, France recently made considerable efforts to improve the relations with Israel through the following means:

a. Encouraging bilateral exchanges in various fields: high-level mutual visits, strategic and scientific cooperation, cultural contacts and commercial agreements. France claims that the contacts between the French and Israeli civil societies might bridge the political differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As in the case of the transatlantic rift, they explain that disagreements are not incompatible with friendly relations, naming them “friendly disagreements”.

b. Stressing common interests, such as the opposition to Syrian’s presence in Lebanon, or the opposition to the development of Iran’s nuclear capabilities.

c. Putting forward their determination to fight against anti-Semitic acts of aggression, committed essentially by French Muslims against French Jews (about 590 acts of aggression in 2004).

In conclusion, Israel should not ignore or underestimate the recent developments of the French approach because of the economic and political advantages of the bilateral contacts. In addition, Israel should appreciate the French concept of developing civil contacts since it disrupts the pattern of viewing Israel only through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

French vast diplomatic contacts might help to alleviate Israel’s political isolation in the international arena: due to France’s international image, of a state which fights for moral universal values, its abstention from severely criticizing Israel might improve Israel’s international stance. France’s influential role on the foreign policy of the EU is an equally important consideration. Furthermore, France might use its prestige in the Palestinian Authority to promote essential reforms.

Nevertheless, there is no room for exaggerated optimistic expectations. The developments in France’s approach do not change the favorable traditional French attitude towards the Palestinians, who are perceived as the weaker side. Furthermore, the French have vast interests in the Arab world and are influenced by internal considerations concerning the big Muslim community in France (about 6 million).

Thus, along with the promoting of bilateral contacts, which serve the interests of both countries, Israel should be prudent in allowing France and the EU a more active role in the peace process. At the same time, France’s participation in the peace process will probably depend on a balanced and impartial approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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Dr. Tsilla Hershco
Dr. Tsilla Hershco

Dr. Tsilla Hershco, a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, specializes in Franco-Israeli and EU-Israeli relations. Email: [email protected]