Emmanuel Macron's Gaza-Israel blindspot exposes a French divide

President’s tribute to victims of October 7 attack disputed even before his predecessor described Gazans as collateral victims

French President Emmanuel Macron presides over a ceremony in honour of French citizens who died in Hamas's attack against Israel, Wednesday. AP
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When France’s President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute on Wednesday to the 42 French victims of the October 7 attacks on Israel, some immediately asked why he did not also mention French citizens killed in Gaza.

The questions came from far-left group La France Insoumise, which has systematically opposed Mr Macron on various issues and has sent mixed signals regarding Hamas.

The Palestinian group behind the attacks is listed as a terror organisation by the EU, the US and Israel.

Wednesday’s ceremony was well-received overall and viewed as important for France’s Jewish community, which is still reeling from deadly anti-Semitic attacks, including a 2012 shooting of Jewish schoolchildren in Toulouse.

The presidential guard held pictures of each victim as a violin played the Jewish kaddish prayer for the dead in the courtyard of the Invalides military complex in Paris.

But LFI’s calls to also honour French citizens killed in Gaza raised more questions than answers and shed light on an uncomfortable discussion about how society should commemorate the dead.

For many, including former president Francois Hollande, it depends on how they lost their lives.

“It can’t be the same tribute. There are victims of terrorism and victims of war,” Mr Hollande told radio France Info. “You’re in a war, you’re a collateral victim like ... in Ukraine.”

You’re in a war, you’re a collateral victim
Francois Hollande on the Gaza dead

The argument is that the approximately 1,200 Israelis killed by Hamas were victims of terrorism and anti-Semitism in a manner reminiscent of 19th century Eastern European pogroms and the Second World War Holocaust.

Gunmen went on a rampage, killing civilians, including children, in their homes in Israeli villages near the Gaza border. Corpses were found incinerated.

Dying under an Israeli bomb, at the hands of a sniper or because of lack of health care – as have more than 27,000 people in Gaza due to Israel’s retaliatory military operation – does not carry the same gravity or historical baggage in France.

But it’s a complex debate that can backfire amid accusations of giving more value to some lives over others.

“The far-left is trying to argue that those killed on October 7 are war victims and did not die because of terrorism or anti-Semitism,” said author Jonathan Hayoun.

“These are French and dual French-Israeli citizens who were killed because they were Jewish. It’s the biggest number of French Jews killed in the same event since the Holocaust,” Mr Hayoun told The National.

“If 40 French Muslims had been killed in the US by a white supremacist, I believe there would have been a national tribute in France,” said Mr Hayoun, who recently produced a four-part documentary for French television on the history of anti-Semitism.

Another ceremony?

So far, France is the only country outside Israel to have organised a national ceremony for its citizens that died in the October 7 attacks. Victims included nationals from 41 states, including 39 Americans, 27 Ukrainians and 21 Argentinians, figures shared by the Israeli Prime Minister's office show.

Sources close to Mr Macron have told journalists that the Elysee Palace is open to the idea of organising a separate ceremony for French nationals killed in Gaza as requested by LFI.

“Homage will be paid to them at another time,” they said. “Today, we are dealing with victims of terrorism and we must not mix two types of victims.”

What this homage would look like remains unclear.

Emmanuel Macron attends service for French citizens killed by Hamas - in pictures

There are no official figures about how many French citizens have died in Gaza except for a Foreign Affairs Ministry statement in late October saying that two unnamed children had been killed in the north of the enclave. Their mother is wanted for terrorism, according to French media. The press release did not specify how they died and did not mention Israel.

"We deplore the death of two of our nationals in the Gaza strip," a French diplomatic source told The National. "We have succeeded in getting the vast majority of our compatriots out of Gaza. The security of our nationals, agents and their dependents is our priority. France has been mobilized for several weeks to organize their exit from Gaza."

Few in France expected Mr Macron to delve into the Gaza conflict in his speech that was geared towards the necessity of fighting anti-Semitism. The President did not say the words “Palestinians” or “Gaza” – except for it being a location close to a rave party where more than 350 revellers were killed by Hamas on October 7.

Mr Macron did, however, say that: “their destinies are not the only ones that the tearing of the Middle East continues to crush in this tornado of suffering that is war. And all lives are equal, priceless in the eyes of France.”

The speech reflected the President’s attempt at striking a centrist position on the conflict. He has expressed both empathy towards Israel over the October 7 attacks but has been critical of some of the government’s choices while also supporting a two-state solution.

It’s a difficult position to hold but Mr Macron has so far managed to maintain it, said Ilan Greilsammer, a professor of political science and French civilisation at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv.

“There’s also a large Muslim population in France and he has to be careful about what he says and what he does,” Mr Greilsammer told The National. “Macron is navigating between possible pitfalls.”

LFI’s criticism of Mr Macron must be dismissed, according to Mr Greilsammer, due to the party’s systematic anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views. “LFI’s insistence on making parallels is just proof of their intellectual paucity,” he said.

The party denies claims that it is anti-Semitic or that it supports Hamas. LFI portrays itself as a group that defends Palestinian rights and calls for Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories. In the name of anti-imperialism, it has backed Syrian president Bashar Al Assad despite human rights groups saying that he is responsible for most of the hundreds of thousands of dead in his country’s civil war since 2011.

Gaza as a 'ghetto'

Some argue that Mr Macron did not go far enough in his acknowledgement of Palestinian suffering, which paved the way for commentators to describe those killed in Gaza as collateral damage, thus overlooking Israel’s killing of civilians in the enclave.

“It’s true that Hamas wanted to kill civilians,” said Firas Kontar, a French-Syrian specialist of the Syrian civil war and observer of French politics.

“But saying that Israel does not want to also kill civilians is false.

“That’s the problem. The death of innocent victims mustn’t become a pretext to kill more innocent people.”

The Israeli army denies such claims. It says it takes measures to avoid civilian deaths and has accused Hamas of using people as human shields.

But calls by senior Israeli politicians to kill Palestinian civilians were cited as evidence by the International Court of Justice last month when it asked Israel to avoid acts of genocide in Gaza.

Lawyers defending Israel said that these calls do not reflect government policy.

Yet the Palestinian deaths continue.

Raphael Pitty, a French doctor who recently returned from Gaza, told daily Le Monde this week that, in the enclave, life today is “reminiscent of the Warsaw ghetto, with people dying in the streets, street vendors, misery, it's not very different”.

Dr Pitty, who also worked in war zones in Ukraine and Syria, added: “We are facing a genocide, a desire to suppress a population, to bring them into a situation of extreme precariousness, to remove their dignity, to concentrate them in the same area, to eliminate hospital structures, without leaving them any exit door.”

Writers who have made similar comparisons between Gaza and Jewish ghettos have been accused of belittling Jewish suffering. Israel has rejected accusations of genocide.

The fact that doctors and journalists are making use of this comparison indicates the Holocaust’s enduring importance in shaping the political debate in France and, by extension, the rest of Europe.

Updated: February 09, 2024, 11:31 AM