'We are fighting terrorists, and Iran is behind them'

Iran, terror concerns are changing France’s ties with Israel, say visiting MPs

40 French parliamentarians meet with top Israeli leaders, with some sounding alarm over Hezbollah’s grip over Lebanon, antisemitism in France

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

French parliamentarians meet President Isaac Herzog (right) in Jerusalem, July 20, 2021 (Mark Neyman/GPO)
French parliamentarians meet President Isaac Herzog (right) in Jerusalem, July 20, 2021 (Mark Neyman/GPO)

France’s view of Israel is slowly changing due to concerns about Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran’s support for terrorism, French parliamentarians visiting Israel said Tuesday.

“I think we changed our point of view in France about Iran,” Philippe Latombe, vice president of the France-Israel Friendship Group in the National Assembly, told The Times of Israel, “and so I think we changed our point of view about Israel.”

“But only at the top of the political class,” he emphasized.

Latombe, a 46-year-old freshman legislator who came from the banking sector, was one of 40 French parliamentarians visiting Israel on a trip organized by ELNET, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening the Europe-Israel relationship.

Half the members of the group are in Israel for the first time.

The change in France’s perspective could be felt in the briefing provided to the group by Eric Danon, the French envoy in Israel, said Latombe.

“The speech changed from the last time I came,” he said, underlining a particular focus on the Iranian threat this year.

President Isaac Herzog (L) and French Ambassador Eric Danon at a Bastille Day celebration, Jaffa, July 14, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

During his Bastille Day address in Tel Aviv last week, French Ambassador Danon declared, “The mullahs’ regime should never possess the nuclear bomb.”

“We might have sometimes disagreed on the method,” Danon continued in a surprisingly muscular speech, “but we stand together to fight simultaneously against the nuclear risk, the ballistic missile threat and the destabilizing actions of Iran in the region, and first of all in Lebanon, in Syria and in Iraq.”

France is one of the P5+1 nations negotiating with Iran in Vienna in an attempt to salvage the 2015 nuclear accord.

This was Latombe’s fourth trip to Israel since he was elected to the French National Assembly in 2017 as part of the centrist Democratic Movement party.

‘We know Hezbollah is controlling Lebanon’

Senator Francois Bonneau, a member of Foreign Affairs, Defense and Armed Forces Committee in the French Senate, also stressed France’s concern with Iran’s nuclear program and support of terrorist organizations, notably the Lebanon-based Hezbollah.

French Senator Francois Bonneau in Jerusalem, July 21, 2021 (Lazar Berman/Times of Israel)

France has “major problems” with Islamic terrorism, he said, speaking to The Times of Israel at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem.

“We are fighting terrorists, and Hezbollah is a clearly terrorist organization, so we are focused on this question,” Bonneau said. “And we know that Iran is behind them of course,” he added.

France, with its historic and cultural ties with Lebanon, is closely involved in trying to help Israel’s northern neighbor deal with what the World Bank says is one of the world’s worst financial crises since the 1850s.

“We know how Hezbollah is controlling the population,” Bonneau said.

But according to Latombe, French leaders still do not understand that Hezbollah is a major source of Lebanon’s woes, and that they cannot “just impose a French solution” on a country dominated by a powerful Iranian proxy.

Supporters of Lebanon’s prime minister-designate Saad Hariri, who stepped down saying he was unable to form a government, hurl stones at a Lebanese armoured personnel carrier in the capital Beirut on July 15, 2021. (AFP)

Many French citizens still see Israel as the source of Lebanon’s problems, Latombe lamented, and view Israel as the aggressor against the Palestinians.

“For most people in France,” he said, “what they see is that Israel is harming the Palestinians.”

Constance Le Grip, secretary of the France-Israel Friendship Group at the National Assembly, disagreed.

“The French population is not hostile, except some activists from extreme left movements and activists from Islamic associations,” she said.

France’s sometimes critical stance toward Israel doesn’t stem from antagonism, she argued, but rather from Paris’s longstanding desire to play a meaningful role on the world stage, while carving out positions that are distinct from those of the US and mid-level powers like the UK and Germany.

“It comes from the idea that France can play a special role, can build bridges,” Le Grip explained.

She argued the France-Israel bilateral relationship could change for the better if her Gaullist The Republicans party wins in France’s April 2022 presidential election.

“I regret and deplore how France votes at the UN and WHO. I  hope this will change, this has to be changed.”

French MP Constance Le Grip (Leila Paul – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

In May, France voted for a WHO resolution singling out Israel as a violator of Palestinians’ and Golan Druze health rights.

Le Grip, who like the other parliamentarians interviewed is not Jewish herself, says her own family history in Amsterdam and Strasbourg — both cities with old and prominent Jewish communities — forged her initial connection with Israel and Jewish issues. “It’s part of my personal involvement and family involvement for decades,” she said.

As a parliamentarian, she stresses the “common values that we share, we as Europeans, as French citizens, with Israel — democracy, freedom, free expression, free press, equality between men and women.”

Le Grip said she personally speaks to colleagues, especially young lawmakers, to urge them to join visits to Israel.

Revitalizing the relationship

The French Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs told The Times of Israel that the country is committed to strengthening the bilateral relationship.

“The French minister of foreign affairs already had the opportunity to speak by phone with his Israeli counterpart,” a French Foreign Ministry source said. “He congratulated him on his inauguration and that of his government and reiterated the importance of the Franco-Israeli partnership. The French minister declared that he was determined to pursue close coordination, based on a relationship of trust, openness and friendship.”

The French diplomat also said that France is in favor of restoring annual meetings of the EU-Israel Association Council, which has not met since 2012.

“This is an important issue for Israel, and we want to work alongside our Israeli partners on this issue… As for all Association Council meetings, we need to define beforehand the objectives,” the diplomat said.

Israel in 1995 signed an Association Agreement that defined its relationship with the EU and ratified it in 2000. It stipulates that the two sides will meet once a year in an Association Council to discuss matters of mutual concern. The last time the sides met was in 2012, when current Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman was foreign minister.

Israel canceled the council in 2013, when the EU angered Israel by issuing new regulations according to which no Israeli body that operates or has links beyond the Green Line can receive EU funding or have any cooperation with the European bloc.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid meets with 26 EU foreign ministers in Brussels, July 12, 2021. (European Union)

During Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s meeting with the EU Foreign Affairs Council in Brussels earlier this month, most countries supported the idea of scheduling an Association Council meeting and strengthening the bilateral relationship in general.

“France is willing to explore ways to revitalize the relationship between the EU and Israel,” the French Foreign Ministry told The Times of Israel. “This objective cannot be dissociated from the political framework in which it takes place, including EU well-known positions on the two-state solution, within the framework of international law.”

During the phone call with Lapid, Frances Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian “recalled our strong condemnation of attacks on Israeli territory and our unwavering dedication to Israel’s security.”

French Minister for Foreign Affairs Jean-Yves Le Drian speaks during a joint press conference with Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, at Farmleigh House and Estate in Dublin on May 20, 2021. (PAUL FAITH / AFP)

The two also discussed the crisis in Lebanon and the role of Iran in the region.

Losing part of France

Pierre Henri Dumont, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the National Assembly in The Republicans party, was elected to parliament in 2017 at age 29. He was elected mayor of the commune of Marck in the Hauts-De-France region at 26.

Dumont lamented France’s education system, saying it was one of the causes of ignorance about Jewish history and antisemitism in the country.

Pierre-Henri Dumont in the salle des Quatres Colonnes of the Palais Bourbon (Antoine Lamielle – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

“Students in France are ill-educated about history, about what happened during World War II,” he said. “Our academic system is asking less of its pupils. We have people in schools right now in France who are not even learning what happened in history. I think that’s horrific, because when you don’t know where you are coming from, where your country is coming from, what your ancestors had to face, you cannot know what you want to do for your country, you cannot know what the purpose of your nation is.”

Though there is no Jewish community in his Pas-de-Calais 7th district, he said that French antisemitism is a problem that threatens the very heart of the country.

“What we need to address as politicians and also as French citizens is that the Jewish community, Jews, are at the center of French society,” he declared. “It’s a part of French society. If we lose this part of French society, the Jewish community, Jewish history, we are losing a part of French history. And we are losing a part of what created France.”

Dumont said that the parliament should stiffen hate crime legislation and ensure that schools are teaching French Jewish history.

Violent attacks against Jews in France have been on the rise over the past decade.

In May, French Jews took to the streets to protest a legal ruling that French Jew Sarah Halimi’s killer will not face trial for murder.

In April 2017, 65-year-old Halimi was murdered at her Paris apartment. There is no question about who killed her: Her neighbor, Kobili Traore, then 27, entered her home, beat her and threw her out the window.

Over the subsequent four years, French courts concluded that Traore, who is Muslim, was motivated to kill Halimi because she was Jewish. But while French courts acknowledged that the crime was antisemitic, two 2019 lower-court determinations held that Traore could not be tried for murder because he was psychotic at the time of the killing — a condition the court concluded stemmed from the fact that he was very high on marijuana when he killed Halimi.

Members of the French Jewish community gather outside the French Embassy in Tel Aviv to ask justice for late Sarah Halimi who was murdered by her neighbor in her apartment in Paris, seen on April 25, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Halimi’s killing was part of a long trend of violent attacks against Jews in France.

The abduction, torture and killing in 2006 of a Jewish cellphone salesman named Ilan Halimi (no relation to Sarah) initiated the current era of antisemitic murders. (Previous attacks on Jews in France had been carried out by foreign terrorists.) The perpetrators, a criminal gang that included many members from Muslim backgrounds, told police they had selected Halimi because he was Jewish and they thought that meant he had money.

The attacks have resulted in at least 10 deaths in the last decade, including the murder of four Jews by a jihadist at a Jewish school in Toulouse in 2012 and the murder of another four Jews at a kosher supermarket in Paris in 2015. And just a year after Halimi’s death, two men — one of whom shouted “Allahu akbar” — killed 85-year-old Holocaust survivor Mireille Knoll in her apartment in the same arrondissement, in what police labeled an antisemitic hate crime.

“We as a nation need to protect this part of the French community,” said Dumont.

Encouraging signs

During their three-day tour, the French parliamentarians held private meetings with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, President Isaac Herzog, Foreign Minister Lapid, and former prime minister MK Benjamin Netanyahu.

Former prime minister MK Benjamin Netanyahu meets with French parliamentarians, July 21, 2021 (Noam Chojnowski/ELNET)

Bennett expressed confidence that the new right-left Israeli coalition would last for the duration of its mandate, the parliamentarians said.

“The arrival of this distinguished delegation to Israel is of great importance and we continue our work in strengthening the relationship between Israel and Europe,” said ELNET-Israel CEO Shai Bazak. “A key element of this effort is that France and other European countries gain a thorough understanding of Israel, its political and security challenges – but also the mutual interests and the added value Israel has to offer.”

ELNET-France’s head, Arié Bensemhoun, expressed pleasure at “the growing interest and support of Israel in Europe and particularly in France, and are very much encouraged by the strong attendance of European legislators in our Israel tours and briefings.”

JTA contributed to this report. 

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