French twist

After criticizing civilian deaths in Gaza, Macron asserts ‘unequivocal support’ for Israel

Over 100,000 rally against antisemitism in Paris over the weekend

Christian Liewig - Corbis/Getty Images

PARIS, FRANCE - NOVEMBER 11: French President Emmanuel Macron attends the commemoration ceremony of the 105th anniversary of the Armistice of 1918 at the Arc de Triomphe on November 11, 2023 in Paris, France.

French President Emmanuel Macron moved over the weekend to correct the impression that he was accusing Israel of targeting civilians, declaring his support for Israel in its war on Hamas, while 105,000 Parisians rallied against antisemitism on Sunday.

A BBC interview on Saturday with Macron, who had hosted a humanitarian aid conference for Gaza the day prior, was published with the headline, “Macron calls on Israel to stop killing Gaza’s women and babies.”

Paris quickly went into damage control mode, with a French diplomatic source telling Jewish Insider on Saturday night that Macron’s views were misrepresented.

“President Macron never implied, and does not think, that Israeli forces are deliberately targeting civilians,” the source clarified to JI. “He has been consistently qualifying Hamas’ use of hostages or civilian population as ‘unacceptable blackmail.’”

The incident illustrates how delicate the issue of civilian deaths has become in the Israel-Hamas war, even for staunch allies of the Jewish state, where every word is parsed and freighted with meaning.

The entire three-and-a-half-minute televised segment of Macron’s interview with the BBC focused on civilian victims of Israel’s strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza, and much of it was an exchange between Macron and BBC Europe Editor Katya Adler over whether he thought Israel was committing war crimes.

After Adler repeatedly posed the question to Macron, he responded that “this is not the proper way to approach the question. We recognize the right [of Israel] to protect themselves.”

At the same time, Macron said that “de facto, today civilians are bombed, babies, ladies, old people bombed and killed. There is no reason for that and I do urge Israel to stop.”

The interview sparked an uproar in Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserting that “the responsibility for harm to civilians is on Hamas-ISIS and not Israel. It must be remembered that Israel entered the war due to that terrorist organization’s brutal murder of hundreds of Israelis and holding hostage more than 200 Israelis. While Israel does everything in its power to avoid harming civilians and urges them to leave the battle areas, Hamas-ISIS is doing all it can to prevent them from moving to safe areas and uses them as human shields.”

Meyer Habib, the French lawmaker representing expats in the Mediterranean region, including Israel, and a personal friend of Netanyahu who accompanied Macron on his visit to Israel last month, told JI he was “very surprised” to hear the president’s remarks to the BBC.

“He said the opposite [in Israel]…He offered to fight together, like the coalition against ISIS,” Habib said. “You can’t say Israel has the right to self-defense and then, when Israel defends itself, after 1,400 Israelis were killed, you say, ‘That’s enough.’”

Habib quoted the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise”: “Do you hear, in the countryside /The roar of those ferocious soldiers?/They’re coming right into your arms/To cut the throats of your sons, your comrades!” adding: “That’s exactly what happened to Israel!”

The French diplomatic source said Macron strongly supports Israel’s right to defend itself and fight terror.

“From Oct. 7 onwards, he has repeatedly condemned Hamas’ barbaric terrorist attacks…Macron has also been the first international leader to call for a framework of international cooperation, similar to the anti-ISIS coalition, including coordination of defense and security measures, intelligence sharing…He repeated that Israel does not and will not stand alone in the fight against terrorism,” the source stated.

The French diplomatic source also provided a video of Macron’s comments about the hostages, which was cut from the interview.

“We work very hard to try to protect people, our people there, because we lost…more than 40 French nationals and we still have hostages, and when I speak about that first I think about our families,” Macron said.

Eight French nationals are missing or abducted by Hamas.

“During the BBC interview, President Macron recalled his personal mobilization and that of French authorities towards the swift liberation of hostages; this specific quote did not appear in the edited version released by the BBC,” the source lamented. “The French Embassy [in] Israel and the French Consulate in Tel Aviv are in permanent contact with these families, calling them every two or three days.”

At the same time, Macron “believes that more can be done considering the dire humanitarian situation of Gaza’s civilian population. He therefore believes that a humanitarian pause and eventually a cease-fire are opportune to help the civilian population in Gaza.”

Macron called Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Sunday to clarify his remarks, saying that “he does not and did not intend to accuse Israel of intentionally harming innocent civilians in the campaign against Hamas” and “he unequivocally supports Israel’s right and duty to self-defense,” according to a readout from the Elysee Palace. 

The French president also said he is committed to working towards the hostages’ release and called for greater assistance in delivering humanitarian solutions to Gazan civilians. France has stationed a hospital ship off of Gaza’s shores to aid evacuees, in addition to hosting Friday’s conference on humanitarian aid.

The conversation between Macron and Herzog coincided with marches against antisemitism throughout France, home to roughly 500,000 Jews, making it the second-largest Jewish Diaspora community. Local police departments reported that 182,000 people participated across the country, 105,000 of whom were in Paris. Thousands marched in Marseille, Lyon, Strasbourg and other cities.

Over 20 members of Macron’s cabinet attended the march, led by Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne, whose father was a Holocaust survivor, and Foreign Minister Catherine Colonna. National Assembly leader Yaël Braun-Pivet, who has been targeted with antisemitic threats, attended, as did former Presidents François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy. Actresses Natalie Portman and Charlotte Gainsbourg also marched against antisemitism.

All of the parties in parliament except for the far-left France Unbowed took part in the march.

Marine Le Pen, ex-leader of the National Rally, formerly known as the National Front, courted criticism for her attendance together with current party leader, Jordan Bardella. The party was founded by her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who was repeatedly convicted of antisemitic hate speech and Holocaust denial, while the younger Le Pen has tried to improve the party’s image. French government spokesman Olivier Veran said that the National Rally “does not have a place” at the “grand civic march,” but that it is open to the public.

Habib argued that Le Pen’s move away from antisemitism is genuine and that she differs from her father – while adding, “it’s unfortunate to have to defend them because I don’t vote for them.”

In addition, he pointed out that Le Pen received 42% of the vote in the last election, and National Rally has dozens of members in the French parliament, and “if someone like that is marching against antisemitism, for freeing the hostages, for Israel’s right to defend itself – that’s good.”

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed Party, said he was boycotting the event because it was an expression of “unconditional support for the massacre” of Palestinians. 

The far-left “got rid of their communist symbol and adopted the Islamic green. That’s their electoral base,” Habib told JI.

Macron did not attend, with his office saying that French presidents do not attend any marches, even for a righteous cause. 

He did, however, publish an open letter in Le Parisien, which he began by pointing out that Hamas killed 40 French citizens, and that another eight are missing or hostages whose release he is working to secure.

“In addition to the grief that has struck our nation, rampant antisemitism is now rearing its head in a way that is hard to bear…Within a month, over 1,000 antisemitic acts were committed on our land…hundreds of arrests were made…with the aim of returning antisemitism to the place where it belongs: In the courts and behind bars,” he wrote. Quoting Emile Zola, the writer who drew attention to the antisemitic targeting of Alfred Dreyfus, Macron said antisemitism is “abominable.” 

“A France where our Jewish citizens live in fear is not France…I see the organization of marches against antisemitism, for the release of the kidnapped and for peace as a source of hope for the republic,” Macron wrote.
Macron banned pro-Palestinian marches following Hamas’ attack on Oct. 7, calling them a risk to public order, but the courts in France required some such demonstrations to be allowed to be held, if they are not glorifying terrorism.

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