Behind the Headlines French Public Opinion Turns Against Israel over Lebanon
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Behind the Headlines French Public Opinion Turns Against Israel over Lebanon

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The editor of the traditionally pro-Israel weekly Canard Enchaine expected a storm of verbal outrage when he showed his editorial board last week a vehemently anti-Israel article describing the Israeli invasion of Lebanon as a “massacre.” To his surprise, after a moment of silence, someone asked “Shouldn’t we hit harder?”

What happened at the Canard is typical of the overall reaction in France where public opinion and militants, belonging to both the government and opposition parties, are far more outspoken in their denunciation of “Israel’s aggression” than the traditional political leadership.

For the first time, the split is between a pro-Israel leadership, relatively moderation its condemnations of Israel’s policies, and a far more vehement public opinion. Traditionally, the rift had always been the other way round, as Presidents Charles De Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and Valery Giscard d’Estaing learned at their expense.

The process of this dramatic turnabout was slow. For the first two days of the “Peace for Galilee” operation, public opinion and the press reacted in the traditional way as far as Israel is concerned. Admiration was expressed for the valor of Israel’s troops and understanding for the need to clear the Palestinian terrorists out of southern Lebanon to prevent them from threatening Israeli settlements and the civilian population in northern Galilee.

Both television and the print media stressed the “defensive” opinion that the campaign was launched in retaliation for the attack on Israel’s Ambassador in London. Syria, moreover is probably the most unpopular foreign country in France both for historic reasons and the suspicion that Damascus was behind the recent terrorist attacks which killed and maimed dozens of Frenchmen.

But as Israeli troops pushed deeper into Lebanon’s heart marching on Beirut, public opinion started to switch. For a day or two, it seemed uncertain but as television newsreels started showing the shellings and bombardments of civilian are as, including some of Lebanon’s ### towns, public opinion turned the other way.


One paper after another, first the usually anti-Israel Le Monde, but then the rest of the press and television networks, began to speak of “massacre” and even “genocide.” The usually pro-Israel France Soir, France’s largest circulation daily, described the situation in the Israeli-occupied territories as “a journey into hell.” The paper’s correspondent who followed on the tracks of the Israeli troops, wrote: “Lebanon’s coast, from the Israeli border and up to the outskirts of Beirut, has become a land of fear, death and destruction. This coast used to be the equivalent of France’s Cote d’Azur, a place where it was pleasant to live. Now, driving up the coast is a journey into hell.”

Most of France Soir’s editors and publishers are Jews who are actively pro-Israel. The rest of the French press used far harsher terms to describe the effects of Israel’s bombardment and the results of the occupation. The few editors who tried to stop the avalanche of apocalyptic descriptions were faced with near editorial revolts. Even part of the Jewish community was influenced by the press and television reports.

The French Jewish community was split over Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. Most of the traditional Jewish leaders assured Israeli Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir, during his three-day visit to Paris last week of their solidarity and support. But hundreds of others, including prominent Jewish intellectuals, openly and publicly appealed for an immediate Israeli withdrawal.

Sixteen Jewish scientists, including three Nobel Laureates, cabled Premier Menachem Begin to call “for an immediate halt to the murderous (Israeli) bombings of Beirut’s civilian population.” Another group consisting of some 100 intellectuals, mainly Jews, launched a public appeal to call “for an immediate stop to Israeli aggression in Lebanon which nothing can justify.” The appeal, signed by some of France’s best known writers, philosophers and scientists condemned Israel’s action for “having criminal consequences.”

Last week several hundred Jewish demonstrators calling for an end to Israel’s intervention in Lebanon clashed, at times violently, with a large group of Israeli supporters. The two demonstrations took place in front of the Israeli Embassy while Shamir was holding a press conference. The reporters in the building could hear the shouts of the demonstrators, the police sirens and the tumult of the fights which broke out.

Among those who called for the anti-Begin demonstration were Jewish philosopher Vladimir Yank-jelewitz and Nobel Prize winner Andre Kastler.

The embarrassing point is that most of the intellectuals who now protest Israel’s action in Lebanon had previously been associated with various pro-Israeli movements and had generally played a highly active role in various humanitarian efforts such as the campaigns on behalf of Soviet Jewry. All three Nobel Laureates who are now protesting, have traditionally defended Israel’s cause.


Most Jewish leaders are assuring the Israeli Embassy of their continued loyalty and over 600 people gave Shamir a standing ovation at a banquet organized by the French section of Herut last week. The protestors were denounced by the Herut loyalists as “self-hating Jews.”

Since then, the organized French Jewish community and Israel’s friends in France have closed ranks in support for Israel’s action in Lebanon. Fifteen organizations, within the framework of a “Joint Front for Israel,” approved the military campaign yesterday, which, they say, “aims at forcing out of Lebanon two occupation armies, the Syrian and the Palestinian, and returning the country to its legal owners.” Among the “Fronts” members are several non-Jewish organizations such as the Christian Committee for Israel and Jewish Christian Meetings.

The French Zionist Federation voted Tuesday for a resolution expressing its support and several other organizations, which include the Orthodox Bnei Akiva, the right-wing Betar, but also the Labor Zionist Habonim and the Association of Jewish Socialist Students’ denounced Lebanon’s invasion “by the Syrian army and Palestinian terrorists.”

At the same time, however, several left-wing Jewish organizations, including the Zionist Hashomer Hatzair and the French Friends of Peace Now, an Israeli dovish organization, denounced the Israeli government for having transformed the “Peace for Galilee” operation into “A War of Conquest in Lebanon.” The left-wing movements called on France’s Jews to show their solidarity with Israel’s “Peace Camp.”

Several Christian organizations, including the Protestant Federation of France and various Catholic movements also called for support for the Israeli “Peace Camp” and for an immediate Israeli withdrawal.

Former Sheli MK, Israeli Gen. (Ret.) Matityahu Peled, and Hoolam Haze editor, Uri Avneri, both members of the Israeli Council for Israeli-Palestinian Peace, called at the Elysee Palace this week to clarify the position “of a large part of Israeli public opinion in favor of peace.” The two Israeli cloves were met by members of President Francois Mitterrand’s personal staff and later conferred with the Secretary General of the Socialist Party, Lionel Jospiin.


The paradox is that France’s main political leaders, government and opposition alike, tried to keep a low profile. Most either refused to comment or denounced Israel in relatively mild terms — Mitterrand because of his deep personal commitment to Israel; others, because of electoral considerations. In most political parties, lower level politicians were openly unhappy with this situation. At a Cabinet meeting last week, Minister of State (the second highest rank after that of Prime Minister) Jean Claude Chevenement protested against Mitterrand’s moderation and suggested France extend an official invitation to PLO chief Yasir Arafat to come to Paris.

Mitterrand turned this suggestion down at once but ministers grumbled. Similar incidents occurred within the opposition as several Gaullist and centrist deputies urged opposition leader Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac to denounce “Israeli aggression.” He refused.

It took Mitterrand himself a full week and the pressure of his own party leaders to bring himself to publicly condemn Israel and call for a cease-fire in Lebanon.

Dozens of committees, some sponsored by the Communist Party, but most created at the initiative of private intellectuals, writers, scientists, philosophers, have sprung up to demand Israel’s withdrawal. One of these committees, headed by a prominent Jewish writer and historian, Jacques Vidal Anaquet, published full page ads in the country’s leading newspapers to “describe the situation” and call for mass action against Israel’s occupation of Lebanon.

The feeling here is that it will take many years and hard work for Israel to regain its lost image and popularity in France.

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