Why did France say “non”?

It fell to France to nix the terrible deal that John Kerry worked out with Iran — a deal that would have signaled the demise of sanctions without setting back the Iranian quest for nuclear weapons. But why did France pull the trigger?

Upon hearing the news, I said that France’s veto stemmed mainly from “a robust sense of reality [about] the Middle East,” something that the Obama administration doesn’t possess. In other words, France understands the neighborhood.

Indeed, as Evelyn Gordon points out, the French have consistently taken a tougher position on Iranian nukes than the U.S. They have also taken a hard line on Syria’s chemical weapons, only to be embarrassed at the last minute by the Obama-Kerry flip-flop on attacking Assad’s stockpile.

By way of further possible explanation, I pointed to the French tendency to (1) react contemptuously to displays of American naivety and (2) pounce whenever the U.S. leaves a power vacuum in world affairs.

I didn’t intend by this to be critical of France. Naivety in life-and-death matters deserves contempt. Furthermore, it’s natural, and hardly objectionable, for a proud nation to exert its diplomatic influence when a once-proud nation begins to shy away from what it has previously viewed as its responsibilities.

But Evelyn Gordon presents another possible explanation for France’s unwillingness to accept Kerry’s deal: its belief that a deal that’s unacceptable to Israel will lead to an Israeli attack on Iran. This explanation can be seen as another way in which France knows (or claims to know) the neighborhood better than the U.S. does.

To be sure, President Obama doesn’t want to see Israel attack Iran any more than President Hollande does. The difference, in Gordon’s view, is that Obama doesn’t see the same risk of an attack that the French perceive.

And that’s because unlike Obama, the French know history:

Though few people remember nowadays, in 1967, Paris occupied much the same position that Washington occupies now with respect to Israel: Not only was France Israel’s chief arms supplier and Security Council patron, but it was the only country willing to supply Israel with essential equipment such as fighter jets. Israel’s air force fought the Six-Day War with French Mirages; only the following year, in 1968, did America for the first time agree to sell it Phantom jets.

Consequently, Charles de Gaulle had every reason to think that when he spoke, Israel would listen. And the French president’s message in 1967 was unequivocal: Under no circumstances must Israel launch a preemptive strike; if it did, it could kiss French patronage goodbye. Israel heard the message loud and clear–and preempted anyway. Facing what it deemed an existential threat, it decided that even the loss of its sole military supplier was the lesser evil.

Does the memory of 1967 play a role in shaping France’s current position regarding Iran? And how relevant is that memory anyway, given the changes that have taken place in Israel during the past 46 years and the differences between the situation Israel faced just before the 1967 war and the situation it faces now?

I don’t know the answer to either question. But it’s not difficult to believe that, when it comes to the Middle East, France is playing chess while Obama is playing checkers.

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