The tortured politics of boycotting Israel in France

The tortured politics of boycotting Israel in France
The BDS movement in France is gaining momentum, but with the largest Jewish and Arab populations in Europe, strong business ties and stringent anti-discrimination laws, the movement has to tread carefully.
6 min read
07 January, 2015
A prohibited pro-Palestinian demonstration in Paris 26 July saw 50 arrests [Getty]

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement in France is gaining momentum, but with the largest Jewish and Arab populations in Europe, strong business ties and anti-discrimination laws that criminalise calls for boycotts that could be seen as targetting a specific group, the movement has to tread carefully.

France has the largest Arab and Jewish populations in Europe. This has meant that tensions from the Middle East are played out in France with particular intensity.

     Eighty people were prosecuted in France in 2010 for calling for a boycott of Israeli products.

The protests against the recent Israeli aggression in Gaza were huge. Around 60 demonstrations took place, even though the government prohibited at least four. Thousands participated in the protests, demanding the French government take action against Israel.

However, France has strong economic ties with Israel, and last year the French government made an effort to foster new investment. Additionally, the so-called Lellouche law from 2003, which introduced strict provisions against discrimination into France's penal code, can be used to criminalise the obstruction of normal economic activity and has been used to convict BDS activists.

Among the different ways and means available to those who criticise Israel - demonstrations, drafting petitions and assorted other forms of political action - boycotting has always been controversial. It has been viewed either as pro-Palestinian or anti-Israeli, regarded variously as a legitimate or illegitimate strategy.

The European Union considered imposing punitive sanctions on Israel after its recent aggression on Gaza, yet refrained from doing so. The sanctions proposed included marking products in EU supermarkets originating in the settlements, limiting cooperation with Israel in various areas and restrictions on the free-trade agreement with Israel.

This comes at a time when European public opinion of Israel grows increasingly negative. During the Israeli aggression on Gaza, hundreds of demonstrations took place in Europe, numerous petitions were drafted by human rights groups, trade unions and political parties demanded the EU use its leverage and impose punitive sanctions on Israel.

The sanctions proposed would include an embargo on all military equipment and the boycott of exports from and investment in Israeli settlements. Some of the most important sanctions proposed were the suspension of the EU-Israel Association Agreement Last November, which 318 European human rights groups called for, and the BDS movement, which calls for an academic, economic and cultural boycott.

The European public's low opinion of Israel was reflected in polls conducted by the BBC World Service on whether Israel's influence is positive or negative. They indicated that perceptions of Israel in Europe are generally poor. Opinion was most positive in France, with 21 percent believing Israeli influence was positive. A staggering 64 percent still believed it was negative.

BDS in France

Several protests against Israel's aggression against Gaza met with a robust response [Getty]

The BDS movement in France (BDSF) has encountered many restrictions, however, of which the Lellouche law is but one. Boycotts are directly associated with racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia, as the definition of discrimination in French law extends beyond the categories of race, religion, and sexual orientation to include members of national groups. A person calling for a boycott in France can be jailed for a year and fined up to 45,000 euro.

In January 2014, the Cour de Cassation confirmed the verdict against of a pro-Palestinian French NGO that called for a boycott of Israel's SodaStream in France.

According to Le Point newspaper, 80 people were prosecuted in France in 2010 for calling for a boycott of Israeli products. In December 2007, the Cour de Cassation officially ruled that boycotting Israeli companies in France is illegal and criminal. However, despite the Lellouche law, today there are 51 French national organisations and 39 local committees taking part in the BDSF Campaigns.

Consequently, BDSF has focused its boycott campaigns on goods and services manufactured in Israeli settlements.

The Israeli settlements have been criticised and even condemned in many official EU statements over the past few decades. In 2013 the EU issued a guideline that stated any Israeli financial instrument that operates in any way (either in the framework of EU-funded financial instruments or otherwise) in any territory within the pre-1967 line would be ineligible for cooperation with the EU.

However, and despite its declarations to that effect, Europe and particularly France is a large export market for fresh Israeli agricultural goods produced in settlements (grapes, peppers, cut flowers, avocado, tomatoes, aubergine, cucumbers and potatoes as well as cosmetics, plastics and textile products). Many protesters participated in campaigns against supermarkets like the Carrefour chain, to raise consumer awareness about products coming from Israeli settlements. An important milestone was achieved in 2011 against Agrexco, an Israeli company that exported fruits and vegetables to France. The campaign "brought the company to its knees" and forced it to stop its activities in France.

BDSF calls for campaigns against French companies working in Israel and Israeli enterprises like Mehadrin, Veolia, Ahava, KKL, Orange, and the dates from the Jordan Valley. Recently BDSF took action against a cultural event at the jazz festival, Jazz n' Kellzner, the festival hosted the Israeli musician Idan Raichel, known to support the Israeli army. BDSF called for and organised a protest at the show on November 24th 2014, asking the audience not to boycott to the show.

French companies' investments in Israeli settlements

French private sector companies have been investing large sums in Israel for some time and in various industries such as solar energy, services, new technologies and transportation. In November 2013, French president Francois Hollande established new economic ties that merged state-sponsored firms with Israeli enterprises.

One of the most important projects is the strategic cooperation agreement signed in November 2013 between the National Society of French Railroads (SNCF) and Israel Railways (ISR). SNCF promised to provide the expertise necessary to transform Israel Railways into a modern and service-oriented national railway operator. The same agreement included "the establishment of a training program for ISR engine drivers and the development and modernisation of Israeli railway stations."

Another recent state owned investment is EDF-EN Israel (Energies Nouvelles) which is about 85 percent state owned, and is part of the French energy giant Electricite de France. Its investment portfolio includes more than 250 million Euros invested in solar-energy projects, the Israeli firm Atlantium Technologies, which mainly focuses on water disinfection, and others involved in cybersecurity and other fields of energy.

Alstom and Veolia, two French multinationals, played a key role in the railway project, which connected settlements in Jerusalem with nearby settlements, many in the West Bank. The project violates international law, the Fourth Geneva Convention and Resolution 465 of the UN Security Council, particularly Article 7 that calls upon all States not to provide Israel with any assistance to be used specifically in connection with settlements in the occupied territories.

The two companies were prosecuted in October 2007 by Association France Palestine Solidarite (AFPS) because of their involvement. Veolia, the first French company to invest in Israel according to the French embassy in Jerusalem, has been under international pressure to withdraw from the project and sell its shares.

According to le Monde Diplomatique, Veolia lost several bids in Europe because of its involvement in the building of the Jerusalem rail project. As a result of several boycott campaigns, Dutch ASN Bank withdrew its investment in Veolia in 2006, and Alstom lost the Swedish AP7 pension fund's investment in 2009.

Alstom is still involved in ongoing maintenance as the provider of the train units. Veolia owned the desalination plant in Ashkelon. However, since July 2014 Veolia has sold all its shares to the American fund Oaktree Capital Management for 250 million Euros, and now plans to invest solely in the Gulf.

For all the political, legal and economic privileges Israel enjoys in France, boycotts can still be effective. They are also perhaps the only way that French public opinion is best be reflected.