Israeli leaders breathed a sigh of relief as news of Emmanuel Macron’s convincing electoral victory over his far-right challenger emerged late last month.
Writing in Hebrew, French and English, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid referred to the centrist Macron as “my good friend” and shared a photograph of the two men embracing.
“Under your leadership, I have no doubt that the ties between Israel and France will continue to grow stronger,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted.
Macron was sworn in on Saturday at the Elysee Palace in Paris, beginning his second term as France’s leader as Europe contends with the war in Ukraine and an uncertain energy future.
Speaking to The Times of Israel on Monday, France’s envoy in Tel Aviv expressed a sentiment similar to that of Israeli officials, stressing that close cooperation between the countries would continue, especially in defense and energy.
“Despite some nuances in perception, France prides itself to be one of Israel’s closest and more capable allies in the fight against radical terrorism,” said Ambassador Eric Danon.
He pointed to the first French Rafale fighter squadron to be stationed in Israel during the 2021 Blue Flag exercise, and the regular visits by French warships in Haifa. Danon also lauded France’s contributions to the campaign against Islamic State.
Danon stressed that Macron “has made it very clear that France’s commitment to the security of Israel was ironclad.”
“I see no reason why such dynamics should change in the near future.”
‘Good for Israel’
On April 24, Macron defeated far-right rival Marine Le Pen in the country’s presidential elections, garnering over 58 percent of the vote in the elections’ second round. Macron’s win was greeted with immense relief in Europe as well as Israel, following fears a Le Pen presidency would leave the continent rudderless in the wake of Brexit and the departure of long-time German chancellor Angela Merkel.
“A, it’s good for Israel. B, it’s good for the world. And between A and B, it’s good for Europe,” said Maya Sion-Tzidkiyahu, an expert on Israel-Europe relations at the Mitvim Institute.
Some now view Macron as Europe’s most prominent statesman, and he has assumed a leading role in Europe’s response to the Russia-Ukraine war. He has pushed for expanded sanctions on Moscow, while at the same time speaking regularly to Putin in an attempt to find a diplomatic way out of the conflict. A victory by Le Pen — seen as sympathetic to Putin — would have been a shockwave for Europe, with profound consequences for the future of the European Union and member states’ joint action on Russia.
“As Israel, we want a functioning EU, so it’s good that Macron was elected,” said Sion-Tzidkiyahu.
Danon said that France was working to strengthen ties between Israel and the EU.
“We are looking forward to deepening the EU-Israel relations through the convening of the Association Council,” said Danon. “We are currently working towards this perspective, mindful of the political and technical conditions pertaining to the EU rules and framework.”
Israel signed an Association Agreement that defined its relationship with the EU in 1995 and ratified it in 2000. It stipulates that the two sides meet once a year in an Association Council to discuss matters of mutual concern. The last time the sides met was in 2012. 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 EU.
In subsequent years, individual EU states prevented the meetings from taking place.
Now, the two sides are looking for a way to hold the Council again. In order for that to happen, all 27 member states must agree on a joint statement, and EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell must put the issue on the agenda of the Foreign Affairs Council.
France has been pushing member states to approve a joint statement to allow the Association Council to meet, experts say.
“France is an advocate for Israel in the EU,” said Sion-Tzidkiyahu.
Not all scholars, though, are sure the country will be more supportive in international institutions.
“When it comes to the EU and the UN, anything that has to do with multilateral diplomacy, France continues to vote against Israel in most UN institutions, and also the EU,” argued Emmanuel Navon of the conservative Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security. “I wouldn’t expect anything there when it comes to any European decision about the Middle East. In those multilateral forums, France continues to have a policy that is not favorable to Israel.”
In the meantime, the Association Council has not convened, and with Europe’s attention captured by the war in Ukraine, it is simply not on the list of pressing concerns for the EU.
The Turkey factor
Still, said Navon, Macron’s regional posture has been beneficial for Israel. “His policy in the Middle East and the EastMed has been a boon for Israel, due to his strengthening of the presence of the French Navy in the EastMed a couple of years ago.”
France and Turkey have been in competition around the Mediterranean in recent years. In Libya, Paris and Ankara backed rival sides in the civil war, and in 2020 ships from the two navies came close to blows when a French frigate tried to stop a Turkish vessel suspected of smuggling arms to the North African country. France sent military forces to back Greece against Turkey in a growing standoff over natural gas exploration in the Mediterranean. Macron also criticized Ankara’s 2019 invasion of northeastern Syria, and accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of interfering in the recent election in France.
France also joined the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, or EMFG, which includes Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus and the Palestinian Authority, a de facto outgrowth of a regional anti-Turkish faction.
Macron “has very much joined this axis of energy and anti-Erdogan axis in the Middle East together with Israel,” said Navon.
Calling the eastern Mediterranean a “key region” for France, Danon said Paris has been “very committed along the past years to promoting stability and respect of international law, in this region where several destabilizing crises remain unsolved.”
“In particular, we have been very clear in our call on all countries in the region to respect the sovereignty and sovereign rights of EU member states over their maritime areas and to look for peaceful settlements of disputes,” he continued, alluding to Turkish encroachment on Greek and Cypriot territorial waters.
Over the past 18 months, however, Erdogan has shown a clear desire to improve relations with regional rivals, including France and Israel.
“We are seeing an understanding from Paris and Ankara that both sides want to improve relations going forward,” said Yusuf Erim, Turkey analyst at TRT World. “We are seeing competition fatigue from both Turkey and France, and an increase in the understanding that this type of competition would be much more profitable if it gave way to cooperation.”
The trend toward a more constructive France-Turkey relationship could also have a trickle-down effect on improving ties between Jerusalem and Ankara.
“If Paris and Ankara are improving their relationship, and part of this improvement entails a more pragmatic, more understanding Mediterranean theater, this can definitely remove an obstacle going forward between Turkey and Israel,” said Erim.
Goodbye de Gaulle
There have been a number of signs that, with the election behind him, Macron intends to improve ties with Israel even further.
Danon told visiting French parliamentarians last July that Macron intends to reset relations with Israel if he is reelected in 2022, according to a diplomatic source with knowledge of the meeting.
Macron’s appointment of Danon was itself an important indication of where he wants to take the relationship. Danon, a close confidant of Macron, is not a typical French diplomat, said Navon, and is “very well disposed toward Israel.”
That disposition was on full display in July, when Danon gave a surprisingly muscular speech at Bastille Day celebrations, stressing France’s position that “the mullahs’ regime [in Iran] should never possess the nuclear bomb.”
Prime Minister Jean Castex’s speech to the Representative Council of French Jews on February 25 was perhaps the most convincing piece of evidence that Macron intends to meaningfully improve France-Israel relations. The address was written by Macron, but he asked the prime minister to deliver it in his stead while he dealt with the Russian invasion of Ukraine that had begun the day before.
“You know my attachment to Jerusalem,” read Macron’s speech. “Jerusalem is the eternal capital of the Jewish people. I never stopped saying it.”
Reading Macron’s text, Castex angrily rejected the idea that Israel is an apartheid state, a charge leveled by Amnesty International and other human rights organizations: “How dare we talk about apartheid in a state where Arab citizens are represented in government, in parliament, hold leadership positions and positions of responsibility, where all citizens, regardless of their religion, have understood that their only hope is peace together?”
Lapid’s co-leadership of the governing coalition — should it survive — could make this process smoother. He and Macron have a warm personal relationship stretching back before either of them was in their current position. Lapid took the unusual step of endorsing Macron in the 2017 presidential election, and Macron seemed to return the favor by hosting him at the Elysee Palace in Paris only four days before the April 2019 elections in Israel.
In late November, Lapid visited Paris and met with Macron at the end of a three-day trip to Europe, seen largely as focused on the Iran nuclear talks in Vienna.
“Macron has turned away from the Gaullist and pro-Arab tradition of French foreign policy,” said Navon.
Despite the encouraging signs, some question marks remain. French voters return to the polls in June to elect the next National Assembly. Macron’s Renaissance party (formerly ‘En Marche!’) currently holds a majority in parliament, but is under pressure from hard-left and far-right coalitions in the upcoming elections. Losing the majority will primarily hamper his domestic agenda, but could also hurt his ability to focus on and advance foreign policy priorities.
It is also not yet known whether Macron will replace Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has at times been a vocal critic of Israel and who last year said the country was at risk of “long-lasting apartheid” if the Palestinians didn’t obtain their own state.
In any event, Macron is expected to seek to position France as the leader of a more unified Europe, a regional military power, and a close partner for Israel.
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
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