The thesis of this short and somewhat scrappily written book is that French diplomacy has almost consistently favoured Arabs over Jews. In the Third and Fourth Republic, foreign ministers changed so frequently that foreign policy was largely shaped by the exclusive élite in the Quai d'Orsay, the French Foreign Office. This élite was motivated in part by a deep-rooted antisemitism of the kind that had produced the Dreyfus case, and in part by France's ambitions to be `une puissance musulmane' - that is to say, the premier European nation to exert its influence in Muslim North Africa and the Middle East. (He does not mention the influence of Arabists in the British Foreign Office also.) The Presidents of the Fifth Republic, while mostly acquitted of personal antisemitism, were equally determined to promote French interests in the Middle East by aligning themselves with the Arabs.
In pursuit of this theory, Pryce-Jones has studied the archives of the Quai d'Orsay, and selected from them a mass of documents by French diplomats at home and abroad which express the grossest antisemitism. In 1921 the French representative on the Mandates Commission forwarded to the French foreign minister the Protocols of the Elders of Zion as conveying the fact of a Jewish conspiracy. Another diplomat in his memoirs, published in 1953 (!) even asserted that Léon Blum had been a German agent!
Naturally, therefore, the Quai d'Orsay was hostile to Zionism from the beginning, partly because it encouraged Jews to see themselves as a nation, and partly because the French had believed that the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 had allocated Palestine to a `Syrie intégrale', to be controlled by France; and they felt thwarted when it became a British mandate instead. Pryce-Jones says that `France took whatever diplomatic measures were available in the United Nations and behind the scenes to avert and delay the crucial vote of November 29, 1947' which accepted a Jewish state, though in the end she was unable to hold out against the recognition of the state of Israel. (He does not explain why France did not simply abstain, as the British did.) But French diplomats in Israel consistently sent hostile despatches back to their foreign office. One of them described the Israeli leaders as behaving no better than the Nazis; others are equally critical and snide about its Jewish character of the state. Always there is the hankering after the old position when France was the protector and champion of Catholic institutions in the Holy Land, the fear that `our grandeur in the Levant' was being compromised and that any warmth towards Israel would damage French relations with the Arabs.
The irony was that there could be no good relations between France and the Arabs while Arab nationalists in the Maghreb sought to free themselves from French colonial rule, and were supported in this endeavour by Nasser's Egypt. With Egypt as a common enemy, in the run-up to the Suez War the Ministry of Defence wanted to supply Israel with weapons, while the Quay d'Orsay did its best to block their delivery. No wonder, then, that the Quay d'Orsay was kept out of the loop by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister when they planned their collaboration with Israel in the Suez War of 1956. The French ambassador at the time, Pierre Gilbert, was one of the few pro-Israeli diplomats, and Pryce-Jones mentions three others later on, without explaining how they came to be appointed by post-Suez governments which he describes as basically hostile to Israel.
For in 1958 De Gaulle came to power. He let the Maghreb go and so drew the sting of Arab resentment of France, which could then revert to the policy of the Quay d'Orsay of restoring France's role as `une puissance musulmane'. Besides, he saw Israel as too close an ally of the United States whose influence he challenged whenever possible. In the 1967 war De Gaulle stopped all shipments of arms to Israel, protested against the reunification of Jerusalem, and burst out in a famous antisemitic statement about the Jews being `an elite people, self-assured and domineering, with a burning ambition for conquest'.
The line set by De Gaulle was continued by his successors: Pompidou complained that Israel appealed for support to Jews in other countries; Giscard d'Estaing criticized the 1978 Camp David Agreement between Egypt and Israel; Mitterand's foreign minister thought that the assassination of Sadat was therefore a positive event. It was the French who took the initiative in Europe and at the UN for recognizing the PLO; and they courted and supplied with arms every Arab dictator: first Gaddafi, then Saddam Hussein; they supported the exiled Khomeini against the pro-American Shah, and when Khomeini came to power in Iran and was involved in a war against Iraq, they supplied both countries with weapons. Chirac staged the famous outburst against his Israeli security guards on a visit to the Old City. He opposed sanctions against Saddam Hussein, and his announcement in advance that he would veto `the second resolution' at the UN legitimizing the second Iraq War encouraged Saddam to thwart the weapons inspectors, with consequences we all know. He was also the only Western leader to attend the funeral of Hafiz al-Assad of Syria and to visit Arafat when he lay dying in a French military hospital.
I think that Pryce-Jones has proved his point that French diplomats have for the most part supported the Arabs against Israel. Whether that justifies the provocative title of the book is, however, another matter. Pryce-Jones is so totally committed to the Israeli side that he never shows any awareness either that Israel's policy towards the Arabs is not entirely beyond criticism or that all nations try to maximize their influence in the Middle East and tend to work against those who would erode it. Valuable though the information in this book is, its tone is decidedly partisan.