France discovered the Arab world with Napoleon’s ill-fated expedition to Egypt in 1798. If David Pryce-Jones is to be believed, this event marked the beginning of two centuries of pernicious Arabophilia and anti-Semitism, leading successive French governments to support unpleasant Middle Eastern despots and turn a blind eye to Islamic terrorism.
Like most large generalisations, this one requires a fair amount of tendentious selection to support it. Pryce-Jones draws his examples from a wide field. The Dreyfus affair, the exclusion of Jews from the higher reaches of the pre-war diplomatic service, the racial policies of Vichy France, the granting of asylum to the Mufti of Jerusalem and later to Khomeini and Arafat, are all pressed into service. So are a variety of anti-Semitic remarks by French officials and ministers over the years, most of them long ago. At one point we are told that modern French governments have been deliberately indulgent towards North African migrants who beat up or murder Jews or torch cars in suburban Paris, a proposition which is illustrated by some rather ambiguous examples, but supported by nothing that would count as evidence in a serious work of history. However, all of these things are marginal by comparison with what Pryce-Jones regards as the main crime of France, namely its failure to support the cause of Israel in the Middle East.
The problem about all this is that it runs together a number of distinct phenomena with very different causes. First, there is the casual anti-Semitism which was characteristic of almost all European and American elites until well into the 20th century. This fact is sometimes uncomfortable to remember in the post-Holocaust world. But it has rarely had any serious political consequences. In a man like Churchill, brought up at the end of the Victorian era, it was consistent with strong support for Zionism. In France, it is true, anti-Semitism was a more potent political force in the period of some 70 years up to the end of the second world war. The reasons are complex, and most of them are peculiar to the years of the Third Republic and to certain sections of French society. The main factors at work were the extreme social conservatism of the French Catholic Church, the role of the Church and the army as standard-bearers of the political Right, and the emotional power of a brand of nationalism strongly associated with both institutions. These attitudes enjoyed their last and most venomous outing during the Vichy years. They are still shared by a handful of indigenous fanatics. But they have had no significant influence on French public policy for many years. In today’s France anti-Semitism has quite different origins. It derives its strength from the immigrant communities from North Africa who have settled there since the 1960s, and it is a direct reflection of the tensions between Israel and the Palestinians. This is a serious problem, but it is misleading to treat it as endemic in French political life or as part of an enduring tradition going back to the 19th century.
It is the purpose of French diplomacy to serve the French national interest, and the positions taken by successive French governments on the Middle East reflect their changing perceptions of where France’s real interests lie. These perceptions are inherently fallible, like all human judgments, but they are not dishonourable. For a century before the foundation of the state of Israel, the main objectives of France’s policy in the Middle East were to assure the stability of a region where it had major colonies, and to maintain its prestige and influence in the face of colonial rivals, principally Britain. Between the wars, these were the main reasons for the country’s sporadic expressions of support for the indigenous Arab population of Palestine, in the face of British support for the Jewish national home. It therefore came as no surprise when France expressed misgivings about the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the impact of that event on the rest of the Arab world.
Yet, ironically, it was the French Fourth Republic, looking for allies against the newly resurgent Arab nationalism of its North African colonies, which became the principal Western ally of the state of Israel in the next 15 years. France equipped the first Israeli air force and built the nuclear facility at Dimona. More recently, French policy, freed of its colonial burdens, has been shaped by different considerations. The dominant theme has been concern about Israel’s expansion beyond its 1967 borders, a development which has destabilised not just the Middle East but much of the rest of the world. Whatever else one may think about this, it is a source of legitimate concern to a Mediterranean country with international interests and a large domestic Muslim population. The French response to it seems on the face of it to be perfectly rational.
Is it ‘untrue to the values France once claimed to exemplify in the name of enlightenment’, to cite one of David Pryce-Jones’ more striking pronouncements? That of course must depend on where one thinks that enlightened values point. In a revealing moment, Pryce-Jones describes the memoirs of the pro-Zionist diplomat Jean Bourdeillette (entitled Pour Israël) as a ‘tribute to the independence of his mind’. So there you have it. An independent mind supports Israel. A confused, prejudiced or corrupt mind might have something to say for the moral or political case of the Palestinians. Yet these propositions, although fundamental to the whole of his argument, are never argued or justified. They are simply treated as self-evident. To the American audience for which this book is intended, they may well be. But more objective spirits will find it unsatisfying that a polemic directed against the moral stature of one of the most consistently civilised and humane European states should be based on propositions which, for want of any argument in support, can only be described as the author’s prejudices.