France’s presidential election gave citizens a strong sense of déjà vu: As most analysts predicted, the results of the first round were a repeat of 2017, with incumbent President Emmanuel Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen the two candidates advancing to the second round, out of a pool of five.
Haaretz asked experts in France and Israel to comment on the leading candidates’ positions regarding Israel, Iran and the Middle East. What would French policy toward the region look like under each of the candidates – from Israeli-Palestinian peace talks to the Iran nuclear deal? Here is what they had to say...
Macron: More of the same
Ties between Jerusalem and Paris have “thrived” under the current French president, says Daniel Shek, Israel’s former ambassador to Paris and ex-spokesperson for Israel’s Foreign Ministry. He mentions many collaborations in science, education, medicine and culture that have expanded since Macron took power in 2017. The president, he notes, has also expressed admiration for Israel as the “startup nation.”
On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, France and Israel continue to disagree: Macron, like all French presidents in recent decades, supports a two-state solution and opposes Israeli settlements. But at the same time, Shek says, the French president spoke out earlier this year against Amnesty International’s report labeling Israel an “apartheid state.”
On Iran, Macron has – at least verbally – offered a tougher stance than the United States on some issues that are currently being negotiated in the Vienna nuclear talks. The Iranian Foreign Ministry has even called France the “bad cop” of the nuclear talks, after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian complained in January that the pace of the talks was “too slow.”
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Despite this seemingly tough approach, Shek believes that if and when an agreement is eventually reached, France will have to align itself to the positions of the United States and the European Union, even if it does not like all of the deal’s clauses.
George Malbrunot, a Middle East reporter and analyst for Le Figaro newspaper, describes Macron’s Middle East policy as “hyperactive yet sterile.” In his view, Macron is “too impatient, abrupt and never listens to anyone.”
During an official visit to Lebanon in 2020, Macron slammed Malbrunot over an article in which the journalist criticized Macron’s policies in the region.
In general, Malbrunot says, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is less of a priority for France than it was in previous decades. He believes the waves of terror that have hit France over the years have changed French public opinion, which now tends to identify more with the Israelis than the Palestinians. The rise of terrorism in France has also led to broader cooperation between Israeli and French security and intelligence services, and France’s appreciation of Israel’s long expertise in fighting terror.
If Macron were to be reelected, these trends would probably continue and expand, even if from time to time there would be political flare-ups between the two sides – like during Macron’s January 2020 visit to Jerusalem, when he lashed out at Israeli security for accompanying him into a French church in Jerusalem’s Old City.
Le Pen: Antisemitic history, pro-Israeli posture
If the polls are right, Marine Le Pen has a better chance than ever before of winning and becoming France’s next president. The far-right candidate believes France should refrain as much as possible from interfering in foreign conflicts, and the country would probably leave the NATO military alliance if she became president.
Le Pen’s record on the Middle East is as controversial as it gets. She praised Syria’s murderous autocrat Bashar Assad, who has overseen the killings of hundreds of thousands of his own citizens, for fighting Islamist terrorism.
On Iran, she originally sided with Tehran and defended its right to pursue a civilian nuclear program, which she stated was the sole purpose of the regime’s nuclear ambitions – contrary to Washington and Jerusalem’s assessments. However, in a recent interview on French television, she expressed concerns over Tehran’s attempts “to circumvent the limits concerning its nuclear program.”
Le Pen has worked hard to win support from within the Jewish community in recent years, having to overcome the dark antisemitic history of her nationalistic party and her family. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was one of the most prominent antisemitic politicians in postwar Europe. In an attempt to distance herself from him, she has changed the name of the party from National Front to National Rally, and launched a charm offensive to win over French Jewish voters – mostly over concerns regarding Islamist extremism. This has also led her to express more support for Israel.
Despite several attempts to receive an official invitation from the Israeli government to visit the country, these have never been granted by Jerusalem, which seemingly continues to regard her with suspicion – based on her party’s notorious antisemitic history and the fact that many of its members still espouse such positions.
Shek says that if Le Pen were to become president, he would expect her to stick to the traditional French position regarding a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He believes “there are no fundamental differences in the [two] candidates’ positions on the Israel-Palestinian question.”