France and the Palestine Question before 1948

France and the Palestine Question before 1948
Competition with the British, North African Considerations, Lukewarm Support for Zionism

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The French Consulate General in Jerusalem

Matson photo service, Library of Congress

Heirs to the Mamluk policy, the Ottomans had closed Palestine to Europeans for fear of an offensive return of the Crusaders. The Latin pilgrimage was entrusted to the Custody of the Holy Land, run by the Dominican order. There was no Échelle (trading place open to Europeans), and therefore no consulate. The nearest Échelle was in Saida, and it was moved to Acre at the end of the eighteenth century. For the European powers, the most important question was that of the Christian holy sites, where the various Christian churches disputed their respective rights. In this regard, France wanted to be the protector of the Catholics, but since it was not present on the ground, its action was limited to diplomatic interventions in Constantinople.

The Opening of Palestine

During the "Egyptian occupation" (1832–1840), Palestine was opened up to Europeans, who were given authorization to establish consulates. The first to do so were the British, in 1838; the French did so in 1843. The primary concern was the "protection" of non-Muslim communities: Catholics for the French, Orthodox for the Russians. Christian holy sites became the subject of confrontation, triggering a political process that led to the Crimean War of 1854–1856.

European consulates were thus in a position to grant "consular protection" to persons officially employed by them. The protégés and subjects thus enjoyed a number of rights and tax privileges that brought them closer to those of Europeans, guaranteed by the so-called "capitulation" treaties. Increasingly numerous, these individuals were exempt from the control of Ottoman authority.

As insecurity remained high until the 1860s in Palestine, the French resorted to local Muslim chiefs who also took on the title of protégés, although they were in fact protectors. Order was then restored, and the Ottoman government sought to limit consular protection to non-Muslims. The influx of Muslim Algerians into the region created an ongoing problem: They went to Palestine to escape French domination, but once there they wanted to escape the heavy Ottoman conscription and remembered that they were French subjects, which greatly displeased the Ottoman authorities.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the consulates built up a large local clientele that was a powerful means of influence. With the creation in 1860 of L'Alliance israélite universelle by French Jews, France found a way to consolidate its influence over Jewish communities in Palestine. The Alliance and the Catholic missionary orders thus served French policy. They multiplied the number of schools teaching in French, a language that had become both a language of administration and of communication. From the 1880s onwards, these French-speaking Orientals were called Levantins, and French publicists spoke of a "France of the Levant" stretching from Salonika to Alexandria.

In Palestine itself, the French consulate in Jerusalem had a network of vice-consulates and consular agencies covering the entire region. Its geographical jurisdiction covered the Ottoman district of the Sanjak of Jerusalem, but in French, including in official documents, the word "Palestine" was used. France was the leading foreign investor in Jerusalem. It owned the Jaffa–Jerusalem railroad, and there were plans to connect it with the "Damascus–Hama et Prolongement," a French company, and the Hijaz railroad, which was Ottoman property. The Catholic missions, very important in education, were largely run by French nationals. They enjoyed privileges (such as exemption from property taxes or customs) acknowledged by the Mytilene Agreements of 1901.

The political game was played out between local notables, the Ottoman governor and his representatives, and foreign consuls. In the event of a religious incident, the consuls worked to defuse tensions with non-Muslims, while the governor did the same with Muslims. Similarly, the Franco–Russian alliance from the 1890s onward helped to limit antagonisms between the Catholic and Orthodox communities.

This system of equilibrium was upset by the Young Turk revolution of 1908. The new power wanted to challenge foreign interference, but it gave notables space for active political life and elections.

Throughout the Middle East, French diplomacy broadened its perspectives, no longer confining itself to its Catholic protectorate. An ambitious "Muslim policy" was aimed at Muslim notables. Following the Balkan Wars of 1912–1913, the Ottoman Empire was unofficially divided by European powers into zones of influence, with France claiming the whole of Syria (including Palestine). Overall, however, it regarded the Ottoman Empire as the best guarantor of its moral, religious, and economic interests.

France and Zionism

Organized Jewish emigration to Palestine began in the early 1880s. But its first organizers, the "Lovers of Zion," soon realized that they did not have the means to establish self-sufficient colonies for Jews, particularly in terms of agriculture. They turned to Baron Edmond de Rothschild of France, who created a number of agricultural colonies. Rothschild's colonization was discreet, to avoid tensions with the local population. After a certain amount of trial and error, these colonies used local Arab labor to try to avoid dependence on subsidies from France.

The supervisory staff of the colonies was composed of French Jews with expertise in Mediterranean agriculture, often acquired in colonial Algeria. The products exported were primarily wine (kosher) and citrus fruits, the famous "Jaffa oranges" long cultivated by Palestinian Arabs. While the settlers retained their original nationality (usually Russian) or took Ottoman nationality, they benefited from French consular protection as a result of the colonial framework. Their new schools were largely French-speaking.

For French diplomacy, Rothschildian colonization was an additional tool in a policy of influence. When Theodor Herzl launched political Zionism in the late 1890s, addressing primarily the Jewish masses and European governments, he carefully avoided France, the domain of Edmond de Rothschild, who went so far as to reserve the term "Zionist" for himself. It was only in the 1920s that official Zionism took root in France.

On the eve of 1914, most Jews of North African origin in Palestine were French subjects or protégés.

World War I and the British Mandate

It wasn't until 1917 that Zionism was taken into account in discussions between the great powers. Great Britain used it to question the content of the 1916 agreements, which have wrongly gone down in history as the “Sykes–Picot” accords. Very quickly the French authorities perceived the Zionist movement as one hostile to them: it brought together Russian Jews in an organization that was created in Austria and Germany, and placed itself at the service of Great Britain and eventually the United States. Naturally, all of this was not a source of satisfaction for France.

At the 1919 peace conference, France's hostility to Zionism was as great as its hostility to Arab nationalism, if not greater. Great Britain used Zionism to justify expanding Mandatory Palestine northward at the expense of Syria and Lebanon. France gave in on one point: it did not want Zionist colonies within its Mandate, hence the attribution to Mandatory Palestine of the Galilee Panhandle where Zionist settlements had been established before 1914.

The British Mandate over Palestine was detrimental to French interests. France sold the Jaffa–Jerusalem railroad to the Mandate at a good price. At the San Remo Conference in April 1920, France was forced to abandon the Catholic protectorate, but it retained the "liturgical honors" given to the French consul in Jerusalem. The use of English increased at the expense of French, which was retained mostly in missionary schools.

The French consulate in Jerusalem remained above all an observation post for the political situation in Palestine, which was likely to have a negative influence on the region as a whole, especially as anti-Zionism was becoming an increasingly important theme in Arab nationalism. In 1929, the al-Buraq/ Western Wall Disturbances had negative repercussions in French colonial North Africa.

On the economic front, the explicit purpose of the British Mandate investments was to make Haifa a competitor to Beirut, which was resented by the French.

Although an organized Zionist movement emerged in France, it had little importance. Colonial circles, which gave priority to a French "Muslim policy," were hostile to it. In Palestine, the number of Algerian Jews, considered French citizens since the 1870 Crémieux Decree, was very limited. French High Commissioners in the Levant were diligent in prohibiting Zionist purchases of land in southern Lebanon and the Golan Heights, much to the chagrin of certain Arab landowners.

Only three "left-wing" politicians championed Zionist interests: the socialists Léon Blum and Marius Moutet and the radical socialist Anatole de Monzie. At the time of the Popular Front (1936–37), the Zionist movement had hoped that Chief of Government Blum, a member of the board of the Jewish Agency, would cede southern Lebanon to a Jewish state in formation.

The "British” Plot

In 1937, with the publication of the Peel Commission report, the British Mandate spoke publicly for the first time of a division of Palestine between Jews and Arabs, which rightly aroused the suspicions of the French authorities. They feared a desire on the part of London to merge Arab Palestine (known as "Southern Syria") with Syria, which had become independent from France, as had indeed been envisaged in London.

This explains the welcome given to Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti of Jerusalem, in exile in Lebanon, and the tolerance accorded to movements supporting the Palestinian revolt. It was only in 1939, when the first partition plan had been abandoned, that the French authorities put an end to this tolerance. Haj Amin negotiated with them a declaration supporting the French in North Africa and then escaped to Iraq.

During World War II, London again considered a partition plan involving the merger of the “two Syrias.” La France Libre had had fruitful contacts with the Zionists since its creation, and saw in the political development of Arab nationalism throughout the region a new British plot to expel the French from Syria and Lebanon.

Zionism and Muslim Politics

At the time, the Gaullists envisaged a secret political collaboration between the French and the Zionists, who had become adversaries of the British by the mid-1940s. The nascent Fourth Republic sheltered Zionist movements banned by the British and turned a blind eye to the organization of attacks in Great Britain from French territory. France aimed to take revenge for the British role in the liquidation of the French Mandate.

But the colonial milieu remained deeply attached to the Muslim policy essential to maintaining French positions in North Africa. Contacts were maintained with Palestinian nationalists in exile in Egypt. During discussions at the UN in 1947 on the third partition plan (the previous ones being the recommendation of the Peel Commission and the “two- Syrias” proposal), the French tried to block the project in committee and tended toward abstention.

But when the draft reached the final stage, French socialists such as Léon Blum and Jules Moch urged France to reconsider its position in the name of solidarity with Zionist socialists. More important was US pressure from the White House; France, very weakened in 1947, was in no position to resist. It therefore voted for the partition plan, with a few vague, empty words for the Muslims of North Africa.

During the last months of the British Mandate, only the consulate in Jerusalem played a role in a consular truce commission, which succeeded in obtaining a provisional ceasefire in Jerusalem in early May 1948.

After 15 May 1948, the French government clandestinely delivered arms to the Zionists, despite the UN embargo. The Fisher–Chauvel exchange of letters at the end of 1948 and beginning of 1949 made recognition of Israel conditional on the new state accepting the various privileges and exemptions enjoyed by French institutions since the Ottoman period.

Selected Bibliography: 

Henry Laurens. La question de Palestine, Tome premier, 1799–1921: L’invention de la Terre sainte. Paris: Fayard, 1999.

Henry Laurens. La question de Palestine, Tome deuxième, 1922–1947: Une mission sacrée de civilisation. Paris: Fayard, 2002.