This article has been updated since initial publication.
Demands are growing to cancel the Saison France-Israël 2018 – or France-Israel Season – a series of hundreds of “cultural” events backed by both governments that is set to start next month.
In the first major sign that the pressure is being felt, the French government announced on Wednesday that Prime Minister Édouard Philippe was canceling a trip to open the France-Israel Season.
Already, more than 10,000 people have signed a petition launched this week urging President Emmanuel Macron to cancel the France-Israel Season.
The petition asks: “How can we carry on as if nothing has happened? As if dozens of young people have not been slain in a premeditated fashion? As if hundreds of demonstrators merely demanding their fundamental rights have not been maimed for life? As if the Gaza ghetto does not run the risk of simply being liquidated, with the active or passive complicity of the international community?”
The petition was launched with the support of dozens of activists and academics from France and around the world.
Earlier this month, 80 French artists, including legendary film director Jean-Luc Godard, signed an open letter stating that they would refuse to take part in the France-Israel Season because they did not want to be used as part of an Israeli government propaganda campaign.
Brand Israel propaganda
According to the Institut Français, the cultural arm of the French government, the France-Israel Season’s sponsors include the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli foreign ministry and the Israeli ministry of strategic affairs.
The effort uses familiar themes of Brand Israel propaganda, such as presenting Israel as a “start-up nation” and aiming to “mark a new stage in economic relations.”
Its public messaging goals are explicitly to “renew the view French people hold of Israel and the Israelis hold of France.”
The strategic affairs ministry is in charge of Israel’s efforts to combat the growing global movement for Palestinian rights, including by blacklisting and expelling human rights defenders, and barring international visitors.
Last year, for instance, Israel banned the entry to the occupied West Bank of French elected officials who were part of a solidarity delegation for Palestinian political prisoners.
As the France-Israel Season is scheduled to run until November, it will also coincide with the first anniversary of Israel’s detention of Salah Hamouri, a French-Palestinian human rights defender who has been in an Israeli prison without charge or trial since last August.
Prime minister cancels
While the French government has remained steadfast in its refusal to hold Israel accountable for its systematic violations of Palestinian rights, there are indications it is feeling pressure.
According to veteran Middle East journalist Alain Gresh, President Macron was expected to travel to Israel himself to launch the France-Israel Season.
Instead, the French government is planning to send Prime Minister Édouard Philippe to Israel at the end of this month to open the France-Israel Season and then travel to the occupied West Bank to meet Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas.
“The prime minister’s entourage are considering whether to cancel this trip,” Gresh told Le Muslim Post on Monday. “With Abbas currently in hospital, that would be a good excuse to cancel this visit that would be incomprehensible after the Gaza massacres.”
Gresh proved to be right: on Wednesday, the government informed Israel that Philippe’s visit was being postponed indefinitely, officially citing his busy work schedule at home – a diplomatic excuse.
Gresh called the cancellation “good news.”
Policy of illusions
Gresh stated that France’s policy is “built on an illusion of ‘balance’ between two equal parties, Palestinians and Israelis, as if there were not occupiers and occupied.” That illusion has been reinforced by the Oslo accords of the early 1990s, which while long dead, nonetheless continue to serve as a pretext to normalize relations with Israel.
France, according to Gresh, has constantly reinforced its economic, military and cultural ties with Israel, “refusing to put any pressure on that state.”
France’s unconditional embrace of Israel and toothless response to its crimes reflects a broader problem across the European Union.
On Tuesday morning, the EU said it “expects the Israeli authorities to reverse” their recent decision to expel Omar Shakir, the head of Human Rights Watch’s Jerusalem office.
But as usual the statement warned Israel of no consequences, and the very same day, EU ambassadors hosted Israel’s president for lunch.
And the Israeli air force announced that in the coming week it is hosting representatives from the United States, Brazil, India and a number of EU countries including France for a conference “to connect these important partners to the State of Israel” and its military.
The conference will include maneuvers showing off Israeli forces and technologies used to occupy and kill Palestinians.
Preparing for protest
But signs of dissent are nonetheless growing in France.
They include a particularly frank statement from Communist lawmaker Jean-Paul Lecoq to Yuli Edelstein, the Israeli parliament speaker who was visiting France’s National Assembly last week.
Denouncing Israel’s “illegal blockade” of Gaza, Lecoq told Edelstein that “You are a terrorist state in your behavior” and called for the cancellation of the France-Israel Season.
According to Le Parisien, with few exceptions, the lawmakers who attended the session with Edelstein were highly critical of Israel’s attack on Gaza.
The dissent in France comes amid a wave of solidarity across Europe. In a coordinated action on Tuesday, dozens of musicians announced their support for the cultural boycott of Israel in solidarity with Palestinians.
And there are mounting calls for next year’s Eurovision Song Contest not to be held in Israel, which won the right to host it after the victory this year of Netta Barzilai.
Eurovision organizers surprised observers on Tuesday by telling fans not to book their flights for Israel just yet, urging them to wait for official announcements “on where and when it’ll take place.”
While organizers did not publicly explain their announcement, Eurovision officials were reportedly “very unhappy” about statements from Israeli leaders politicizing the contest, according to Israeli media.
The petition to Macron urges the president to “send a clear signal to the Israeli government by publicly renouncing the France-Israel Season 2018.”
“French civil society will be unable to watch these festivities unfolding without making known its disapproval,” the petition concludes.
On 15 May, activists in the southern city of Montpellier protested a planned dance festival that is part of the France-Israel Season by splattering the sign advertising it with red paint.
The newspaper Le Figaro acknowledged Monday that the “timing of the season is not optimal,” and that many of the venues planning to host events as part of it “are expecting demonstrations at their doors.”