PARIS (Apr. 5)
At least six of the 29 members of the new French Cabinet have firsthand experience of what it means to be caught in a Scud missile attack — they were in Israel during the Persian Gulf War.
The six ministers, at that time members of the center-right political opposition, had joined a mission of solidarity with Israel, invited by Jean Kahn, head of CRIF, the umbrella organization representing French Jewry.
The six have become ministers in France’s new government formed after last week’s general parliamentary elections, in which a coalition of two conservative parties won a landslide victory against the Socialist Party.
“I don’t think they will ever need to be explained what the words a secure Israel’ involve,” Kahn told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
During the trip to Israel, the six politicians were forced to spend part of a night in an airtight shelter when Iraq launched a Scud attack against Israel. The group was wearing gas masks, since it was feared that the missiles were carrying chemical warheads.
The group included Francois Leotard, who now holds the important defense portfolio.
The new prime minister, Edouard Balladur, is also familiar with Israel. Balladur, a close associate of Jacques Chirac, head of the Gaullist Rally for the Republic, has visited Israel twice. Balladur’s appointment was warmly greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, whose dislike of Europe in general and France in particular is common knowledge.
But Rabin went out of his way to write a long letter of congratulation to Balladur, expressing his hopes that the two will meet in the “near future for an exchange of views of the greatest interest for me.”
“We always regarded France as being friendly and supportive, in spite of occasional differences. Given France’s position on the international scene, we attach a considerable importance to this friendship,” Rabin wrote.
FOREIGN MINISTER’S LEANINGS UNCLEAR
As for the new foreign minister, Alain Juppe has replaced the openly pro-Arab Roland Dumas, who was defeated in his constituency and thus is not even a member of the new Parliament.
Juppe was the secretary-general of the Gaullist Rally, a very sensitive political position.
Juppe’s views regarding the Middle East are unclear, as he has not had to make statements concerning that issue until now.
Given all the different faces, one might be tempted to regard the new French Cabinet as more pro-Israel then the former one, but political observers said they doubted if any significant changes will occur.
These people say France’s attitude toward the Middle East, set essentially in 1967 by then President Charles de Gaulle, will not undergo a meaningful change because of three chief reasons.
First, the French constitution states that the president, in this case Francois Mitterrand, has primary responsibility for foreign policy and can essentially override the Cabinet.
Mitterrand is unlikely to change his own views about the Middle East just because his Socialist friends were evicted from the government.
If Juppe desires to change policy, he will have to confront Mitterrand directly, which would be politically unwise.
A PATRON OF MOSLEM PEOPLES
Secondly, the entrenched attitudes in the Foreign Affairs Ministry are difficult to change.
The Near East division is traditionally anti-Zionist, and has been such since the turn of the century.
And in addition, ambassadors and other high-ranking diplomats are difficult, or impossible, to influence.
Finally, France has traditionally regarded itself as a patron of Moslem peoples and countries ever since the 16th century.
The French government symbolized this fact when it built a huge mosque in the heart of Paris in the late 1920s.
Although France surrendered its last Moslem colony in 1962, the number of Moslems living in France is constantly on the rise. According to various surveys, Islam is the second most popular religion in France, representing slightly less than 10 percent of its 55 million population.
By contrast, Jews represent about 1 percent of the population.
Most French Moslems are North African Arabs, from countries once under French rule. French leaders feel they must keep in mind their Moslem neighbors on the other side of the Mediterranean sea, whose combined population is projected to reach 100 million at the start of the next century.
Although no one expects that relations between France and Israel will ever be as they were before the 1967 Six-Day War — when de Gaulle greeted the late Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion with “Israel, our friend, our ally” — there is indeed room for improvement.