Unlike the New York-Washington corridor, France seems not to be especially obsessed by the Netanyahu speech and its reverberations.
This came as a surprise, as I somehow assumed everyone must. But in the days preceding the speech, French interest in the much-analyzed Bibi venture was probably outranked (among America-related topics) by Hillary’s e-mail troubles, the question of whether the homeless man killed by the LAPD was French or not, and Madonna’s invitation to National Front chief Marine Le Pen to “prendre un verre.” In the French daily press, there was next to nothing on the matter. Ah, but what of the monthly Le Monde Diplomatique, center-left or left, depending on how you calculate, and always home to lively polemics about newsworthy subjects? There was indeed a smart and substantive essay on whether Iran and the U.S. are turning away from “the period of hate.” It was by Trita Parsi, an Iranian-American author and activist, Washington-based. I know Trita and admire him tremendously, but for a French perspective, not so much.
By the time of the speech, there appeared stories in all the papers, either leading with it or including a reference on the front page. But it was generally just that, news coverage—supporters and critics of Netanyahu were quoted, it was repeated (with wry astonishment) that only Winston Churchill before him had addressed the American Congress as often. On its website, Le Monde Diplomatique eventually had some fun quoting American right-wingers who wished they had Netanyahu as their leader. In the few areas where there were analyses and opinions, the writers tended to go into areas beyond the Obama and Kerry, right or wrong discussion. Éric Zemmour, author of the best-selling conservative book Le Suicide Francais, addressed the issues in his widely listened to morning radio program. Zemmour is Jewish, right-wing on social issues, a descendant of refugees from Algeria, not a neoconservative. Not knowing his views in any nuanced way, I had no idea what to expect. What followed was down-the-middle analysis of the speech and reaction, coupled with the expectation that the United States and Iran would indeed come to an agreement, and the recognition these sort of grand diplomatic shifts occurred no more than once or twice a century. He mentioned as examples Nixon and Kissinger’s outreach to China (of course) and Louis XV’s alliance with Hapsburg dynasty in the 18th century. “Such acts are attempted for the judgment of the history books, not of daily media outlets. Great risks are taken, established arrangements are destabilized, violent reactions from allied countries and even allied peoples are stirred up…”
But the loser in Zemmour’s analysis was not Israel—“a protege America will never abandon”—but quite possibly Saudi Arabia. “Saudi Arabia does not have this guarantee of eternal alliance. Or at least doesn’t have it any longer. It’s done everything to make a rupture happen: for 10 years, this so-called great friend of the West has subsidized every Islamic movement, from al-Qaeda to the caliphate … . with friends like that, who needs enemies?” (Translations, with apologies, are mine)
The other early analysis of note appeared on France-Info, the widely-listened-to state-sponsored radio show, which included prominently in its coverage a link to Netanyahu’s 2002 speech to a Congressional panel, where he assured the Congress with absolute certainty that Saddam was pursuing nuclear weapons, that he would pass them to terrorists, and that if the United States invaded Iraq everything would be so much better. John Kerry made a passing reference to this speech, and of course Netanyahu’s opponents in the U.S. have quoted it repeatedly. But it has not been featured prominently, if at all, in the mainstream American media. In France, it is one of the first things widely disseminated.
The regular French diplomatic reporters covering the Iran talks tend to cite anonymous French sources, who stress how large the remaining gaps are between the P5+1 and Iran, and how slow the negotiations are going. I would guess that France will be reluctant to concur with whatever Kerry and Iran come up with, or at least will make a show of objections. France still seeks to be a major player on the world stage, and in any case there is no French faction which will permit itself to be seen as America’s silent junior partner.
At the same time, I’m not hearing fierce French opposition to the talks from any quarter, right or left. It was France’s previous president, the fairly conservative Nicholas Sarkozy who was caught on a live mike telling Obama that Netanyahu was a liar; the American could only plead that it was he who had to deal with him all the time. The left, equally pro-Israel but not crazy about it, is not going to try to sabotage a deal for Bibi’s sake. The currently surging Front National is probably the least pro-American major faction in France, but commenting one way or another about the Iran negotiations does not seem to interest its main leaders.
France historically of course was very much involved in the Mideast, and in some dimensions still is. French technicians were critical to the construction of Israel’s first reactor at Dimona, and thus indirectly to getting its nuclear weapons program off the ground. France was Israel’s major arms supplier up through 1967. Charles de Gaulle’s famous November 1967 press conference, stressing France’s split with Israel, marked a shift: the French president was disappointed that Israel had started the 1967 war, violating his counsel, and was disappointed that Israel showed itself set on seizing more land in 1956. His depiction of Jews as an “elite people, self-assured and domineering” was the subject of extensive criticism.
But that seemed to end it; France has since been little obsessed with Israel. Not hostile, not overly friendly. It is, now, and for the foreseeable future, obsessed with its relationship with Muslims, seemingly having been taken completely off-guard by the fact that the descendants of the immigrants France took in to do low-wage jobs have turned into an often alienated, sometimes hostile, and very occasionally terrorist population. Compared to this, France’s relationship with Israel is not complicated: Paris supports the two-state solution, and it will support a negotiation with Iran, after ostentatiously making sure that its concerns are taken into account in any negotiated settlement. But for French commentators, it’s not the biggest subject. Whether Marine Le Pen will sit down and have a drink with Madonna may be more interesting.
Scott McConnell is a founding editor of The American Conservative.