Have you heard what the French President has been saying lately?
On Wednesday, he declared that “I won’t shake hands with people who refuse to recognize Israel,” a snub directed at Muslim leaders. On the same day he warned that France may join the U.S. and Canada in boycotting the UN’s anti-Israel hatefest (known officially as an “anti-racism conference”) in Durban, South Africa: “France will not allow a repetition of the excesses and abuses of 2001.”
He has pledged to attend Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations in May, and after the recent suicide bombing in Dimona, sent a condolence letter to Shimon Peres in which he went out of his way to declare that he will always stand with Israel against terrorism.
His rhetoric on Iran of late has surpassed President Bush’s in its spirit of determination: “Proliferation is a grave threat to international security. We cannot sit by and do nothing while Iran develops technologies which are in violation of international law.”
Sarkozy made some of the above comments at the annual dinner of the CRIF, the umbrella organization of the French Jewish community — it was the first time a French president had ever attended.
And there’s more. The opening paragraph of a New York Times story today reads:
President Nicolas Sarkozy dropped an intellectual bombshell this week, surprising the nation and touching off waves of protest with his revision of the school curriculum: beginning next fall, he said, every fifth grader will have to learn the life story of one of the 11,000 French children killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
All of this is the opposite of his predecessor’s approach, which involved a meticulous attention to detail when it came to denigrating and insulting the Jewish state. It was only a couple of years ago, two days into Israel’s war with Hezbollah, that Jacques Chirac sat in a garden in Paris and announced to the press that Israel’s opening salvos were “completely disproportionate” and added that “One could ask if today there is not a sort of will to destroy Lebanon.” Three days later he sent Dominique de Villepin on a solidarity mission to Beirut.
Chirac, though, was simply following tradition — French leaders have always held Israel in public contempt, such acts being viewed as necessary to earning an advantageous relationship with the Arab world (relations, it’s worth adding, that never worked out very well for France — what did Chirac and his predecessors ever get from their courtships of Saddam Hussein, Yasser Arafat, and Ayatollah Khomeini?).
There was only one period in history when France treated Israel with anything approaching Sarkozy’s benevolence, and that was during the ambassadorship of Pierre-Etienne Gilbert from 1953 to 1959. Gilbert was the first French diplomat who actually admired the Jewish state. During his time in Israel, he learned Hebrew and lobbied vigorously for a collaborative relationship between the two countries. After the 1956 Suez War, Gilbert helped push through the nuclear deal that supplied Israel with its reactor in Dimona. This brief window of good relations was slammed shut when De Gaulle returned from retirement in 1958 and quickly put French diplomacy back on its historic track, an official policy of obsequience to the Arab states.
In the run-up to the Six Day War, France embargoed arms sales to Israel, and during the war, counting on an Israeli defeat, De Gaulle told British Prime Minister Harold Wilson that eventually the West would thank him, as from then on France would “be the only Western power to have any influence with the Arab governments” — a remark that perfectly captures the central ambition of 200 years of French Middle East policy.
Until Sarkozy, that is.