What Netanyahu Needs to Know Before Heading to Paris for Macron Meeting

The link between the 'Marsellaise' and the Book of Esther, and Ben-Gurion’s advice to de Gaulle. A few anecdotes in advance of a Netanyahu trip to France

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to French President Emmanuel Macron during a memorial ceremony in honor of late former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in Strasbourg, France, July 1, 2017.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to French President Emmanuel Macron during a memorial ceremony in honor of late former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, in Strasbourg, July 1, 2017.Credit: \ FRANCOIS LENOIR/REUTERS
Dov Alfon
Dov Alfon


The scene is utterly romantic, perhaps because it was described by a Romantic poet, Alphonse de Lamartine. It’s April 25, 1792, in Strasbourg, where a bourgeois house is packed with visitors, the Austrian enemy is approaching and a young engineering corps officer named Rouget de Lisle sits at the piano and spontaneously writes a nationalist poem that will become the national anthem: “Arise, children of the fatherland / The day of glory has arrived / Against us tyranny’s / Bloody standard is raised / Listen to the sound in the fields / The howling of those fearsome soldiers / They are coming into our midst / To cut the throats of your sons and consorts / To arms, citizens / Form your battalions / March, march / Let impure blood / Water our furrows!” (Translation: francethisway.com)


No, that’s not the way it happened. French school textbooks even acknowledge that. De Lisle wrote the lyrics based on the bellicose manifestos that were being distributed at the time in eastern France, and he can be declared to be the anthem’s lyricist. But everyone agrees that, as he was only an amateur violinist, he could not have composed the music that fired up so many revolutionaries, from Lenin to Allende, via Mao Zedong. The opening bars of “La Marseillaise,” which also begin the Beatles’ song “All You Need Is Love,” were almost immediately identified as being similar to the allegro first movement of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25, written six years earlier. But who wrote the rest?


At the end of the 19th century, an orchestral oratorio by a forgotten French composer, Jean-Baptiste Grison, was discovered, whose melody is totally identical to that of “La Marseillaise” but in a different key. But Grison did not include it in his oeuvre, and according to the performance dates, it was played for the first time five years after “La Marseillaise” was first heard in public. The mystery wasn’t solved until 2006, when an identical oratorio was discovered in the National Library of France. It was composed in 1775 by a Strasbourg pianist named Jean-Frederic Edelmann. Two years later, Mozart would write in a letter that just the day before, he had played “some very pretty pieces by a certain Edelmann” (from a biography of Mozart by Hermann Abert, translated by Stewart Spencer). Harpsichordist Sylvie Pecot-Douatte, who rediscovered Edelmann, also found written testimonies about the oratorio – a large orchestral work titled “Esther,” which tells the tale of Mordechai’s rescue of the Jews of Persia. In the original work, the chorus does not call on revolutionaries to destroy France’s enemies but on the Jews to hang the sons of Haman.

Troops play 'La Marseillaise' during WWI.Credit: Lee / Leemage / AFP


Next Sunday, French President Emmanuel Macron will play host to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Formally, Netanyahu’s invitation is to a ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the deportation of Paris’ Jews. It’s quite possible that Netanyahu will in fact condemn anti-Semitism in Europe, though a week after the George Soros affair in Hungary, he might want to focus on a different issue. His bureau, for example, says that he intends to talk to Macron about all the deficiencies of the nuclear agreement with Iran. So there’s already an oratorio.

Israeli prime ministers have always made a point of explaining to French presidents which agreements will be beneficial to France. David Ben-Gurion, who was invited to the Elysee Palace twice, in 1960 and 1961, used the second occasion to explain to his host, President Charles de Gaulle, that it would be a serious mistake for France to withdraw from Algeria. The Hebrew-language press at the time reported that the two leaders talked about matters related to the Middle East, but that the precise content of the talks would remain classified.

The headline of Davar, the now-defunct newspaper of the Histadrut federation of labor, was unequivocal: “Complete understanding reached in talks between Ben-Gurion and de Gaulle.” A precise account of the meeting and its results appears in the diaries of the official responsible for Algeria in the Elysee Palace, Alain Peyrefitte. According to Peyrefitte, Ben-Gurion presented de Gaulle with a proposal for the partition of Algeria – between the French and the native Arabs – and recommended that the French leader offer financial inducements so that millions of his citizens would settle in Algeria and defend it.

Always thorough, Peyrefitte examined this option, and in August 1961 offered de Gaulle a plan for the division of Algeria, which included population exchanges and division of the capital city, Algiers, into two parts, “like Berlin and Jerusalem.” De Gaulle was amused, and said, “You are in effect proposing to create another State of Israel, this time in North Africa. If we adopt this proposal, the whole world will be against us. All the hearts in the Arab world, in South America, in Asia, will beat for the unfortunate Algerians, [people] will demonstrate all day against France. The Jews at least have a narrative they can adopt, they have a reason, it is the soil in which they struck roots as a people, even before the Arabs. They have no other state. What tales can we sell? Nothing. Everything we did in Algeria carries the clear stain of a colonialist narrative. The only homeland for the French settlers in Algeria is France.”

Petrefitte asked what he should do. De Gaulle told him to devise a different plan, adding, “There is only one question you need to consider: how we rid ourselves of Algeria.”


France indeed rid itself of Algeria on March 18, 1962, as per the Evian Accords. Israel maintained media silence for two months about this development, until Ben-Gurion issued a statement lauding “the supreme wisdom of French President Charles de Gaulle.” On May 31, Foreign Minister Golda Meir explained the statement in an interview to Le Monde: “The withdrawal is a wise move, as the prime minister said. From our point of view, it is important that the Evian Accords be maintained by all the parties, including the French settlers in Algeria, the Jews and the non-Jews. Not only wisdom but morality, too, demands this.”

6. Both national anthems, “La Marseillaise” and “Hatikva,” were played in Paris even before Ben-Gurion landed, on his first visit. It was at a ceremony in which a square was named for Israel in the 17th arrondissement, at the end of Avenue de Wagram. According to the minutes of the local council’s deliberations, on June 29, 1959, the reason for changing the name of the square to Place d’Israel – the name it bears to this day – was France’s admiration for a country which “daily, despite the serious attacks against it, affords a model of courage, morality and honor for France and for the entire Free World.”

Netanyahu’s schedule does not contain any similar event. If he has some spare time, he can visit Fresnes Prison, south of Paris, where his former carousing pal Arnaud Mimran, whose appeal against the severity of his sentence – eight years in jail – after his conviction on fraud charges, was rejected last week by the High Court of Paris, is incarcerated. “All the defendants who fled to Israel are sitting on the seashore. They have all forgotten me,” Mimran told the judges.

The Beatles were right – sometimes all you need is love.

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