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Sins on the Seine

Reviewed by Noah Pollak

Betrayal: France, the Arabs, and the Jews
by David Pryce-Jones
Encounter Books, 2006, 171 pages


On July 12, 2006, Hezbollah militants launched rockets and mortars into Israel to divert attention from a simultaneous ambush on an Israel Defense Forces border patrol, in which three soldiers were killed, two were abducted, and five more were killed in the rescue attempt that followed. Two days later, French President Jacques Chirac pronounced Israel’s nascent military response “completely disproportionate” and added that “One could ask if today there is not a sort of will to destroy Lebanon.” While many other nations condemned Israel, most were careful to include the kind of perfunctory reproach to Hezbollah that would create the appearance of evenhandedness. But for France, not so much: Five days into the conflict, Chirac sent Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on a “solidarity” mission to Beirut. For the Israelis confined to bomb shelters, no such tidings were forthcoming from France.

In the days that followed, the denunciations and allegations reached a crescendo. Kofi Annan declared, with no evidence, that a fatal United Nations observation post bombing was the result of “apparently deliberate targeting” by the IDF. Such carefully choreographed comments were vital to creating an international consensus of outrage sufficient to force cease-fire negotiations, and naturally, France took the lead in stewarding a diplomatic process whose overriding goal was the prevention of Hezbollah’s defeat on the battlefield. France endorsed Arab calls for an immediate cease-fire, which were rejected by Israel, the U.S., and Britain, on the grounds that Hezbollah would be left in place to fight again at a time of its choosing. Throughout the war, the Anglo-Saxon alliance plus Israel insisted that anything less than the elimination of Hezbollah’s military capability against Israel would be dangerous and counterproductive. On August 4 France and the U.S. agreed on a draft Security Council resolution that would send a division-size international force into southern Lebanon empowered with robust rules of engagement that would effect the disarmament of Hezbollah and the prevention of its re-supply. But under Arab League pressure a few days later, France balked and endorsed a new version with much vaguer rules of engagement, but for which France maintained its commitment to lead a military force that would ensure the long-term pacification of southern Lebanon. With the French promise to lead the international military effort undiminished, the United States assented, and on August 11 the Security Council adopted this plan as Resolution 1701. It was loudly declared that this time, the spirit and the letter of the UN resolution would be enforced, that the decades of deadly indifference to the Taif Accord (1989) and Resolution 1559 (2004) were over—in short, that the UN and the Europeans were serious. But as soon as the fighting stopped, all of the promises France had made to secure American, Israeli, and British support were cast aside: Instead of leading the UNIFIL effort with thousands of its soldiers, France offered 200 troops and refused to send more, on the grounds that it could not put its soldiers in harm’s way under such vague rules of engagement—the very rules of engagement France itself had insisted on.

Here were all the hallmarks of contemporary French diplomacy: The exhibitionistic declarations in favor of peace that are intended to turn aggressors such as Hezbollah into victims of “disproportionate” reprisals; the proffering of false guarantees to gullible allies in order to channel negotiations to the favorable terrain of the United Nations; and the use of its influence to muddle and undermine the resolution of conflicts, thus ensuring the future need for more French diplomacy. Add to this list an addendum on behalf of David Pryce-Jones and his new book: Positioning itself as the foremost Western defender of Arab honor, at the expense of Israel and America.

Betrayal: France, the Jews, and the Arabs started as a long essay in Commentary, but even in its extended form is only a slender 171 pages. It is nonetheless a devastating catalogue of both France’s depredations, first against the Jews, and now against Israel, and its institutionalized policy of favoritism toward the Muslim Middle East. Pryce-Jones’ central charge is that France’s desire to be the Middle East’s most ostentatiously helpful European ally, combined with its governing elite’s enthusiasm for anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, has caused France to enter into a Faustian bargain with the Muslim world—an arrangement that has repeatedly proven destructive both to France’s foreign policy interests and to its own vaingloriously celebrated values. France’s posture toward Muslims, Pryce-Jones declares, “has been what the Maginot Line was militarily, a masking of reality, a standing invitation to self-deception.”

France became involved in the Middle East by several routes: Napoleon’s 1798 campaign in Egypt; the 1830 invasion of Algeria; France’s perception of itself as a guardian of Catholicism and Christianity in the Holy Land; and France’s desire to compete with Britain in colonial acquisitions. The institution charged with conceptualizing, administering, and guarding the traditions of French diplomacy was the country’s foreign ministry, known as the Quai d’Orsay, and it is in the archives of this institution that Pryce-Jones spent the largest part of his investigatory energies. The staff of the Quai d’Orsay was dynastic and relied upon by transient political leaders; entry, said one historian, was determined by “nepotism, patronage, and political persuasion [which was] Catholic and hostile to Jews and Protestants and the parliamentary system.” What Pryce-Jones found in its archives is a delightfully detailed record of the French diplomatic community’s centuries-long hostility to Jews and then to Israel, and its self-conscious ambition to co-opt the Muslim Middle East, all written by the articulate and prolific members of this self-selected academy of France’s internationally minded aristocracy.

From the beginning of the Quai d’Orsay, anti-Semitism was the approved mindset, and it influenced both the institution’s foreign policy and its members’ understanding of their superior positions in the social order. In the parlance of the ministry, Jews were an “anti-national” faction loyal to an ambiguous but forebodingly powerful international Jewry. Jews were said to be repositories of numerous (and contradictory) pathologies: They were filthy ghetto-dwellers, disloyal agitators, money-grubbing exploiters, or a secret cabal seeking to infiltrate France. The Zionist movement that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not only confirmed among the French elite their conviction of Jews as a subversive international element, but stirred strategic fears that Zionism would threaten France’s Catholic protectorate in the Levant, the expansion of its power in the region, and its relations with Arabs. The French response was two fold: Calumny was heaped upon Zionism, and the Quai d’Orsay sought strengthened connections to the Arab world, hoping to ensure that the Holy Land would never be a hospitable place for Jews. Pryce-Jones notes, for example, that “paying for the meeting in Paris in June 1913 of twenty-three Arabs from Syria and the Holy Land, the Quai d’Orsay effectively launched the Arab nationalist movement.”

Following World War I and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, France sought to control a swath of the Levant that today includes Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. But Palestine went to the British, so French diplomats sought to suppress Zionist ambitions by convincing their British counterparts of the undesirability of opening the region to Jews. After the Balfour Declaration, France duly warned the British against “arous[ing[ unrealizable expectations in the Jews… the Zionists must understand once and for all that there could be no question of constituting an independent Jewish state in Palestine, nor even forming some sovereign Jewish body.” Beyond its obvious hostility to Jews, France had another reason to agitate against a Jewish state: The Zionist movement was being led by British Jews and abetted by British Protestants, and the endeavor left no room, the French realized, for the expansion, or even participation, of French power. “It became the accepted position in French diplomatic circles,” Pryce-Jones writes, “that ‘the British and the Jews were conspiring together against French interests,’ having formed an ‘Anglo-Jewish policy.’” France’s leading diplomat in the Levant, Robert de Caix, visited the British high commissioner, Sir Herbert Samuel, in Jerusalem in 1920, and his account of the meeting illustrates with brutal perfection the manner in which French anti-Semitism was put in the service of French foreign policy. “This well-mannered English Jew, scraped clean from the ghetto, has been completely taken up in Jerusalem by his tribe and he attends synagogue, accepts no invitations on the Sabbath and on Holy Days goes only on foot… you may be sure that the complete Jewry of both hemispheres will apply a policy consisting of rejecting our frontier to the north of the Hauran and to the banks of the Litani.” Likewise, the head of the Quai d’Orsay’s department for religious affairs concluded a memorandum on the subject of his meeting with Chaim Weizmann by saying, “Jewish nationalism is a mistake and [the Jews] can find peace only through assimilation.”

During World War II, the French diplomatic elite took naturally to collaborating with the Nazis and settled easily into the Vichy government, the most satisfying point of agreement being the necessity of ridding Europe, and preferably the world, of Jews. Jean Giraudoux, a high-ranking Quai d’Orsay official who enjoyed socializing with Nazis, offered in 1939 that “The Jews sully, corrupt, rot, corrode, debase, devalue everything they touch.” Paul Claudel, who in the 1920s was the French ambassador to the United States and who combined diplomatic and literary careers, referred to Jews as “lice with a human face,” and in a play has a Jewish character say, “But for us Jews, there’s no little scrap of earth so large as a gold coin.”



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