How France is cracking down on solidarity with Palestine

France protests Gaza
6 min read
22 May, 2024

On 12 May, unions representing Radio France, a French public broadcaster, called for strike action after comedian Guillaume Meurice was suspended for repeating a joke about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu live on air.

As a result, all programmes on France Inter were suspended for the entire day.

The joke in question was told live on the same show on 23 October and the comedian faced legal proceedings for “public insults of an anti-Semitic nature”. The complaints were dismissed by a Nanterre court.

The incident led to varying reactions, from public condemnation to solidarity based on freedom of expression.

What it highlighted for many, however, was the continued atmosphere of repression by French authorities regarding solidarity with Palestinians, a common theme since Israel’s devastating war on Gaza began last October.

"There have been many attempts to criminalise solidarity with the Palestinian people in France through very serious attacks against the right to demonstrate"

Clampdown on Palestine solidarity

In the aftermath of Hamas’ deadly attacks and Israel’s war on Gaza, the French Ministry of Interior banned all pro-Palestinian demonstrations, a move described by Amnesty International as a  “serious and disproportionate attack on the right to demonstrate”.

The ban failed to prevent large-scale mobilisations, however, which were seen across France, but by 19 October police had already issued 827 fines and arrested 43 people for defying the interior ministry’s order.

“We saw that there have been many attempts to criminalise solidarity with the Palestinian people in France through very serious attacks against the right to demonstrate,” Imen Habib, coordinator for the association Agence Média Palestine (Media Agency Palestine), told The New Arab.

“So it’s not surprising that France only officially called for a cease-fire on 22 March, five months after it all started. There are known risks of a humanitarian catastrophe, and yet no French political will to stop selling weapons to Israel or sanction what is happening.”

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Habib said that there is a huge disconnection between the civilian population and the authorities about Israel’s conduct during its war on Gaza.

“Many people realise there is a genocide going on in Gaza, but representatives of the Israeli army are still invited on the TV,” she continued. “Many personalities have been accused of defending terrorism when they just express support for the Palestinian people, it’s like people are being silenced and bullied into not explaining what is going on.”

Earlier this month, a university talk about Gaza by Rima Hassan, a candidate for the European Parliament for France Insoumise (France Unbowed), was cancelled by the school’s presidency before being authorised by a court.

Mathilde Panot, meanwhile, who heads the lower house of the parliament faction of France Insoumise, was interrogated in April on suspected justification of "terrorism" for the left-wing party’s comments on Hamas’ attack.

Since October, there has been a continued atmosphere of repression by French authorities regarding solidarity with Palestinians. [Getty]

The group had called it "an armed offensive by Palestinian forces" that occurred "in a context of intensification of the Israeli occupation policy", leading to controversy in French politics.

Conferences organised to draw attention to the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza have also faced suppression, with police arriving anywhere between one hour to several minutes before they are due to start with a prefectural decree banning them.

On 30 January, local authorities attempted to ban a conference entitled 'Palestine: no peace without justice' held by journalist Alain Gresh and French-Palestinian lawyer Salah Hammouri, who had been held in administrative detention by Israel for months before being deported.

“The police came fifteen minutes after 7 PM and I had already 300 people waiting to hear our speakers,” Anne Tuaillon, President of the France Palestine Solidarity Association (AFPS), told The New Arab.

"I was a student in May 1968 and I can tell you that the political repression is concerning by its level of aggressivity"

“The French authorities shame us,” Tuaillon added. “It’s like we’re being [compared] to terrorists just for expressing support for the Palestinian people. If you watch the French 24-hour news channels, you hear guests talking about pro-Palestinian activists as being pro-Hamas and anti-Semitic, without any journalist questioning [them]. It’s considered as normal.”

Most of the French media has been cautious in its approach to Israel’s war on Gaza, often aligning with a dominant discourse of supporting Israel’s actions and debating the use of the word 'genocide'.

Others, however, have chosen to report more thoroughly.

“It is important for us to get out of the way [how] the debate has been framed in France,” Carine Fouteau, publishing director of independent investigation site Mediapart, told The New Arab.

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“Basically, if you don’t qualify the Hamas-led attacks as terrorist or dare to mention the colonial history at play there, you can be accused of defending Hamas, but if you don’t qualify their actions as heroic or as acts of resistance, you can be perceived as pro-Israel,” she added.

“There is a political and media responsibility in polarising the debate and not explaining the complexity of what is going on today. We’re just trying to inform and explain all that, by making people heard about their own experience, sending people on the ground, keeping contact with our correspondents, and also keeping track of the countries requesting the International Court of Justice.”

Mediapart made its position clear in a statement published on 7 April, stating clearly that they refer to “words, facts, and sense” to report on the war.

More than 35,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's war, including over 14,000 children. [Getty]

Student protests

France, like many countries worldwide, has seen widespread student demonstrations in support of the Palestinian people, with many demanding an end to ties with Israeli universities.

Campus protests have been aggressively repressed by French police, resulting in arrests and physical injuries. Earlier in May, police entered Paris' Sciences Po university to remove dozens of students staging a pro-Gaza sit-in protest.

Prime Minister Gabriel Attal’s office said all student protests would be dealt with using “total rigour”, with at least 23 university protests removed.

“I was a student in May 1968 and I can tell you that the political repression is concerning by its level of aggressivity,” Bertrand Badie, an international relations specialist and professor at Sciences Po, told The New Arab.

"French authorities are creating a growing distance between the political class and French society"

“You get the feeling that the power is looking to maintain an image that keeping the order is the priority, while expression and academic freedoms are not guaranteed anymore.”

By repressing expressions of outrage by civil society, students, and media personalities at the humanitarian impact of Israel’s war, the French authorities are creating a growing distance between the political class and French society.

“The French political power has been distant from the Palestinian question for around 25 years now when it used to be very involved, and it’s doubled with a more and more visible perception of Israel as a civilisation beacon in the Middle East,” the Sciences Po professor added.

“So France very clearly supports Israel and doesn’t express much support for the Palestinian victims. But people feel that and react to the injustice and this feeling of two weights, two measures.”

Florence Massena is a freelance journalist based in Norway after six years spent in Lebanon. She reports on the environment, women's issues, human rights, and refugees in the Middle East, Africa, and Europe.

Follow her on Twitter: @FlorenceMassena