Gaza protests: ‘France imported the Mideast conflict a long time ago’
The conflict raging in Gaza has spilled over into France, with pro-Palestinian rallies descending into violent clashes. The director of a prominent think tank tells FRANCE 24 the problem has been brewing on French soil for decades.
Pascal Boniface is director of France’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) and the author of a book on the consequences of the Mideast conflict for France.*
Amid growing controversy over the government’s decision to ban pro-Palestinian rallies in Paris and the suburb of Sarcelles last week, and Prime Minister Manuel Vall’s warning that France must not “import” the conflict raging in Gaza, FRANCE 24 asked Boniface to weigh in on the subject.
FRANCE 24: For several days we have repeatedly heard that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been “imported” into France. First of all, do you think this is an accurate description of the situation?
Pascal Boniface: I don’t see anything wrong with the term “importation.” However, I am not comfortable when I hear people say that we must “prevent” the conflict from being imported. France imported this conflict a long time ago.
During the Six-Day War in 1967, the Jewish community in France quickly mobilized around the Israeli cause because they feared the destruction of the Jewish state. Later, when peace talks were launched in the 1980s, and after Yasser Arafat made his first official visit to France in 1989, we began to hear the first clear calls for solidarity with the Palestinian people in this country.
It was only during the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, and the repression unleashed by then prime minister Ariel Sharon, that the reflex to accuse critics of Israeli policy of being anti-Semitic became commonplace. As the image of the Jewish state began to deteriorate, pro-Israeli lobbies also grew in strength.
It’s true that support for the Palestinian cause has grown in recent years, and not just among the Arab and Muslim community in France. This increased activism is evident from all the pro-Palestinian art and photo exhibits that are organised today.
The challenge now is to make sure a free and open debate does not go against the rule of law, or in other words, that it can take place without slander or violence.
F24: How do you explain the French government’s hesitation to express itself on the current crisis? Is the position of the French government changing?
P.B.: French politicians are fearful of being accused of anti-Semitism, and take every measure to avoid the label. Some have chosen to express full support for Israel, others choose never to speak on the subject. But French politicians are not representative of population opinion, which tends to be on the side of Palestinians.
In the first communiqué from the Elysée since the start of the latest conflict in Gaza, [French President] François Hollande expressed "France’s solidarity" with Israel in the face of rocket attacks. He failed to mention Israeli airstrikes on civilian populations, which was widely perceived in France as an uncommonly biased position. It was an omission that probably intensified pro-Palestinian protests.
In retrospect, it’s fairly obvious that the decision to ban protests in Paris and its suburbs was a mistake. In cities where protests were allowed, such as Marseille, Lille and Lyon, there were no violent incidents.
It’s difficult to say whether France’s official position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is changing. The government has traditionally supported a two-state solution, but it is being less vocal about it this at the moment. It is also true that, so far, there has been no strong condemnation of the Israeli bombings from France.
F24: Is there a link between support for the Palestinian cause and widespread disaffection of French youth of North African origin?
P.B.: This may be the case with some youths of Muslim or Arab background who participate in pro-Palestinian rallies and who see a connection to the discrimination they feel in France as minorities, but it is only a small part of the movement.
Most protesters at pro-Palestinian rallies in France are neither Arab nor Muslim.
It’s also important to point out that among protesters who have recently clashed with police at rallies there are a number of thugs who never miss an opportunity to throw rocks at police, and who come to the protests only for that reason.
In Sarcelles, however, there was some real anti-Semitic violence on display, with attacks on Jewish businesses and a synagogue, which is of course very serious and must be condemned.
*La France malade du conflit israélo-palestinien, Editions Salvator, 2014
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