French President Francois Hollande expressed his stark opposition Sunday to any form of boycott leveled against the Jewish state, amid an ongoing spat over comments made by the CEO of mobile giant Orange concerning the company’s possible pullout from Israel.
Speaking on the phone with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Hollande further conveyed his desire to maintain strong economic ties between Israel and France.
Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu instructed the Foreign Ministry to inform Orange CEO Stephane Richard that if he wants to set the record straight over the intended pullout of his company from the country, he can do so in Israel. The instruction came after Richard asked to meet with the Israeli envoy in France.
The chairman of Orange said Saturday that the French telecom group is in Israel “to stay,” after a row erupted over the group’s plan to review its business ties with an Israeli firm that leases its name. Richard told AFP he “sincerely regrets” the furor sparked Wednesday, when he said that Orange would like to end its brand-licensing agreement with Partner, Israel’s second-largest mobile operator.
“Let me make it very clear that the Orange Group is in Israel to stay,” he said. The import of Richard’s newer comments was unclear, as Orange late last week officially announced its decision to withdraw from Israel.
Netanyahu slammed the decision by Orange, which is part state-owned, as “miserable,” and said after Richard’s newer comments that they did not match what he said earlier in the week at a conference in Cairo.
In a letter to a conference organized by Jewish American billionaire Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas this weekend — which hosted representatives of some 50 Jewish and pro-Israel organizations to coordinate a strategy for battling anti-Israel boycott efforts — Netanyahu rejected Richard’s mollifying statements, which, he said, did not align with his comments in Cairo.
“His subsequent words of admiration for Israel don’t square with his unequivocally hostile remarks in Cairo,” the prime minister said.
The spat came after a high-profile diplomatic row in December when French lawmakers voted in favor of recognizing Palestine as a state.
France’s top diplomat Laurent Fabius also said that Paris and the European Union “have a consistent policy on settlement-building that is known to all.”
Fabius stepped in on Friday with an apparent bid to calm the row sparked by Richard’s comments.
“Although it is for the president of the Orange group to determine the commercial strategy of the company, France is firmly opposed to a boycott of Israel,” he said.
Richard’s comments last week touched a raw nerve in Israel, which is growing increasingly concerned about global boycott efforts and the impact on its image abroad.
“Orange does not support any form of boycott, in Israel or anywhere else in the world,” Richard told AFP in an email Saturday.
“Our decision on the use of the brand is motivated — as it is all over the world — solely by our brand strategy,” he said.
He noted that Orange is present in Israel through two subsidiaries, Orange Business Services and Viaccess-Orca, a specialist in Internet television.
Interior Minister Silvan Shalom said Friday he had spoken with Richard, who apologized for the remarks and said any considerations about business moves were not political.
But despite that, his remarks in Cairo came after the publication on May 6 of a report accusing the telecom giant of indirectly supporting Jewish settlement activity through its relationship with Partner.
Compiled by five mainly French NGOs and two trade unions, the report accused Partner of building on confiscated Palestinian land, and urged Orange to cut business ties and publicly declare its desire to avoid contributing to the economic viability of the settlements.
According to accounts, Richard’s comments in Cairo were responding to a question about the report, in light of a threatened boycott of local Orange partner Mobinil over the company’s ties to Israel.
In Cairo, Richard told reporters: “Our intention is to withdraw from Israel. It will take time,” but “for sure we will do it.”
“I am ready to do this tomorrow morning… but without exposing Orange to huge risks.
“I know that it is a sensitive issue here in Egypt, but not only in Egypt… We want to be one of the trustful partners of all Arab countries,” he said, according to The Guardian.
Orange and Partner agreed in April to have their previously open-ended license expire on March 31, 2025.
A statement issued by Partner on Saturday dismissed Richard’s latest conciliatory comments, and said it was outraged that he had not been in contact with the company himself.
“The recent statements… are nothing more than a smokescreen, the object of which is to manipulate public opinion in Israel and the world,” Saturday’s statement said, slamming what it called Richard’s “offensive statements, apologies and vague and evasive expressions.
“Partner wishes to stress that we have to this day received no official communication (from Orange),” it said.
“We demand direct dialogue with… Stephane Richard, who until now has avoided speaking directly with (this) company; inexplicable conduct in our eyes.”
Richard meanwhile sought to soothe frayed nerves by declaring in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, “We love Israel.”