Macron In The Middle East — Do The French Have The Answer?
The French president is expected to call for a “humanitarian pause” in Israel and the opening of a “political perspective” for the Palestinians, while displaying his solidarity with Israel. A singular voice, which recalls France’s past commitments, but in a radically changed context.
When Europe was divided on the Israeli-Palestinian question, France used to take the lead and launch initiatives. This time is long gone. It came to a brutal end under the presidency of Jacques Chirac, when the Oslo peace process collapsed under the blows of the enemies of peace, that included both Jews and Arabs.
Emmanuel Macron, a stranger to this story from the past, arrived in Israel at a time when the European Union is, once again, confused about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East. On Monday, the 27 members were unable to agree on a proposal from the European Commission’s Vice-President Josep Borrell to call for a “humanitarian ceasefire.” Germany, which traditionally supports Israel for historical reasons, opposed the move. The EU members had to settle for a call for a “humanitarian pause” — nuance.
During his visit, the French President met with Israel leader Benjamin Netanyahu, proposing to expand the international coalition against Islamic terror group ISIS to now also include the fight against Hamas. Behind closed doors, sources said Macron would also ask Netanyahu to consider a “humanitarian pause” to relieve the suffering of the population of Gaza and negotiate the fate of the hostages.
Macron became the only foreign head of state since Oct. 7 to also go to Ramallah, in the West Bank, to see the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Even if he is weakened, Abbas remains the only possible interlocutor on the Palestinian side. On Wednesday, Macron is expected to continue his Middle East tour, meeting with leaders in several Arab states.
Is Macron returning to the traditional leading role of French politics?
The context has profoundly changed; starting with the atrocities committed by Hamas — the worst attack against civilians in Israeli history. France, like other Western countries, shows unfailing solidarity with the Jewish State, as is the prerequisite for any political approach.
The president will therefore put forward this “humanitarian pause” that isn’t really on Israel’s agenda.
Nonetheless, the French leader de facto picks up diplomatic accents that were no longer used, except in a ritual manner in Paris. They take on their full meaning with the indiscriminate bombings of Gaza. The president will therefore put forward this “humanitarian pause” that isn’t really on Israel’s agenda, where the population overwhelmingly supports the idea of a ground offensive.
Macron has again brought up the two-state solution — a formula that many thought buried, but which Paris still presents as the “only solution.” A Western country like France relaunching the mechanics of a political solution shows that a reflection has accelerated in recent days, in a context of knee-jerk reactions from the Arab world and risks of division within French society.
Go back to France
Back in Paris, there is a whiff of irony floating in the air about “French nostalgia” for the time when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat regularly came to Paris, and proclaimed the National Charter of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) “obsolete” — a word that had been suggested to him by Roland Dumas, François Mitterrand's Minister of Foreign Affairs (1981-1995).
This was the time, and I was a witness to it, when then-President Chirac made a scene in the alleys of the old city of Jerusalem because Israeli security was too tight. His famously angry question to the head of Israeli security: “Do you want me to go back to my plane and go back to France?” earned him immediate popularity in the Middle East.
But that was in 1996. And not much has happened since.
Macron has the opportunity to put forward a singular French voice on this conflict, even if this European nation no longer holds the weight it once had in the region — and mostly because the forces of violence are much stronger than those of reconciliation. Still, he has no choice but to try.
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