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Will France abandon its opposition to unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state?

If it does, then Israel will be more reliant on Germany, Italy, Greece and the Eastern European states to fight its corner within the European Union, its largest trading partner.

Demonstration in France in support of a Palestinian state. Credit: Hapelinium/Shutterstock.
Demonstration in France in support of a Palestinian state. Credit: Hapelinium/Shutterstock.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

Will France recognize an independent Palestinian state? That question has taken on an added urgency in the last week after Spain and Ireland, members of the European Union, along with non-E.U. member Norway, announced that they were doing exactly that.

Securing French recognition would be a game-changer in terms of the E.U.’s relationships with Israel and the Palestinians. So far, 10 of the E.U.’s 27 member states have recognized an independent Palestine. However, six countries in that grouping—the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Romania—did so long before acceding to E.U. membership, when they were still satellite states under the boot of the Soviet Union; these days, they are visibly more supportive of Israel than the E.U. states in Western Europe. The remainder—Sweden, Cyprus, and now Spain and Ireland—therefore look like a conspicuous minority going against the grain of E.U. policy. If Belgium, Malta and Slovenia also announce recognition, as is expected in the coming weeks, the pro-Palestinian E.U. states will look less isolated, but they will still have a good deal of work to do in terms of changing the bloc’s policy overall.

France, a founding member of the European Union and a heavy-hitter when it comes to foreign and defense policies, would therefore be the feather in the Palestinian cap were Paris to follow the examples of Madrid and Dublin. Certainly, there is growing pressure within France, particularly from its vocal left-wing parties and its growing Muslim community, in favor of recognition. In some ways, the current debate is less about the wisdom of such an action and far more about its timing.

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron, who was strongly supportive of Israel in the aftermath of the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in southern Israel, repeated an earlier claim that recognition of an independent Palestine was no longer a “taboo” for his country. “There are no taboos for France, and I am totally ready to recognize a Palestinian state,” he said during a joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholtz. But, he emphasized, “I think this recognition must be at a useful moment … I will not do an emotional recognition.”

Separately, France’s Foreign Minister, Stephane Sejourne, made a similar point, but unlike Macron, openly criticized Spain and Ireland, insinuating that both were engaged in grandstanding with little thought for the implications of their decision. France supports a two-state solution to the conflict, Sejourne said, and “the issue of recognition will, of course, come into that.” But, he went on, “the concern now—which I have clearly shared with my Spanish and Irish counterparts—is what happens the day after recognition: How diplomatically useful is it?” France was not willing to indulge what Sejourne termed “political positioning,” exclaiming before an assembled group of reporters: “Tell me, what exactly has the Spanish recognition changed a day later in Gaza? Nothing!”

France is making these calculations on two levels. The first concerns the conflict directly; if two states is the goal, then that should be negotiated rather than cajoled by individual states engaging in unilateral recognition. That is also the position of Germany, the other great power in the European Union, and Berlin, fearful of undermining its post-World War II Staatsräson (“reason of state”) support of Israel, remains reluctant to travel down the Spanish and Irish path. France doesn’t march in lockstep with the Germans, but Macron’s government can be expected to liaise with their German colleagues closely before any change in policy is made public.

The second level concerns France’s place in the world. There has always been tension between its desire for a more integrated European Union, especially on security issues, and its historic emphasis on the importance of national sovereignty. The French desire for independence in foreign policymaking led former President Charles de Gaulle to withdraw from NATO’s command structure in 1966, and it took France more than 40 years to eventually reintegrate. But even within NATO, France makes sure to carve out its own position, as most recently illustrated by Macron’s call for greater support for Ukraine even as other members of the alliance, including the United States, are wary of further antagonizing Russian dictator Vladimir Putin’s regime. In such a context, it’s quite possible that France would recognize an independent Palestine but not in the same manner as Ireland and Spain, perhaps by setting goals for the Palestinian Authority to meet before it does so.

Yet the French debate isn’t restricted to the corridors of power or the think tanks issuing position papers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Like his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden, Macron has tried to steer a middle path between a democratic state, and a gang of rapists and murderers seeking its destruction. Both leaders have achieved the same result: an Israel increasingly tired of second-guessing their next moves, and large swathes of the Arab world demanding more punitive action, such as an arms embargo, condemnation at the United Nations, and, of course, recognition of Palestine. And both leaders are facing loud calls from legislators and sections of public opinion to bolster the pressure on Israel.

Since Oct. 7, Paris and other cities in France have witnessed large pro-Hamas demonstrations in the streets and on campuses with all their attendant problems: genocidal calls for Israel’s destruction, and attacks on Jews and Jewish-owned property. The day after the Spanish and Irish recognition announcement, far-left members of the French parliament brandished Palestinian flags and demanded that France sever commercial ties with the Jewish state. One of them—David Guiraud, who earlier this year shared antisemitic memes on social media—even went as far as physically assaulting a pro-Israel Jewish Parliament member, Meyer Habib, calling him a “pig in the mud of genocide” for good measure.

Should this agitation continue, Macron may feel obliged to echo Biden in trying to mollify the pro-Hamas mob. The French government will also be aware that ministers meeting at the most recent session of the European Union’s Foreign Affairs Council warned Israel that it could face sanctions if it continues its operation to destroy Hamas in Rafah—a statement that Ireland’s foreign minister found most satisfying. If France does waver, then Israel will be more reliant on Germany, Italy, Greece and the Eastern European states to fight its corner within the European Union, its largest trading partner.

The United States could make an important contribution to these deliberations by explicitly stating that recognition of an independent Palestine is both a reward for the atrocities of Hamas and a major blow to a negotiated settlement. But that, sadly, is unlikely for as long as the Biden administration continues with its strategy of slowly chipping away at Israel’s ability to defend itself, politically and diplomatically.

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