After seven years and two separate tours of duty in Israel – including four
years as ambassador – Christophe Bigot will be returning to Paris next month to
take up a senior appointment in his country’s Foreign Ministry.
Bigot, Israel has been more than just another assignment. He has genuinely taken
Israel into his heart.
Speaking of the relationship between France and
Israel, he said: “Sometimes it can be passionate, but there is no
We are not foreign states to each other. We have a very
deep common history.”
Sitting in his Tel Aviv office on Wednesday with
Jerusalem Post editor-in-chief Steve Linde, photographer Marc Israel Sellem (a
French immigrant), intern Joshua Lipson and yours truly, Bigot spoke emotionally
of the impact that his time in Israel has had on him.
He will carry many
memories with him to Paris, but amongst the more lasting will be the day he
presented his credentials to President Shimon Peres. In addition to the natural
emotions that accompany any ambassador presenting credentials to a living
legend, that date happened to coincide with that of Israel’s receipt of a video
message from Gilad Schalit, then in Hamas captivity.
The date was of
great symbolic value, as one of the missions that Bigot had set for himself even
before returning to Israel was to do everything possible to help facilitate
Schalit is a French-Israeli dual
Bigot was a frequent visitor to the Schalit home in Mitzpe
Hila, and later visited the family in the protest tent set up around the corner
from the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem. He maintained close contact
with the Schalits and his greatest joy was when Noam Schalit, Gilad’s father
invited him to come to the house as soon as Gilad was home.
As he hugged
the young soldier, Bigot said, he could not help being impressed by the strength
and vitality Schalit displayed despite all that he had suffered.
expressed great pride in the manner that France had taken up Schalit’s cause,
and pointed out that many French mayors had displayed posters with his photo in
prominent places in their cities.
So when Bigot embraced Gilad, he said,
“all of us were hugging him.”
Bigot noted the several times he was
invited to attend ceremonies at Yad Vashem recognizing French citizens as
Righteous Among the Nations.
There were quite a number of such
ceremonies, and it warmed his soul to see the families of those who were saved
together with the families of the people who had saved them.
are the French ambassador you carry the crimes of your country during the Second
World War. Three quarters of French Jews were saved but 70,000 were
Bigot acknowledged in sorrow that not all those who were
murdered were killed by the Nazis – many were the victims of French
collaborators with the Nazi regime. Bigot said he was always conscious of this,
and was grateful to the Righteous Among the Nations who restored honor to his
A more recent tragedy for France’s Jews was the terror attack in
Toulouse, in which a terrorist murdered three children and a teacher.
burials took place in Israel, as did the week-long mourning services; Bigot
attended the funerals and paid shiva calls to the families. He became quite
close to Samuel Sandler, the father and grandfather of three of the victims –
Jonathan Sandler and his two young sons Aryeh and Gavriel.
“I was always
amazed by his dignified position,” said Bigot. “It was not about vengeance or
When communities in the South were subjected to missiles
from Gaza, Bigot paid a visit to the region to show solidarity.
learned that there were insufficient shelters to protect the children, he
invited them to his residence in Jaffa. “It was just like a kindergarten here,”
WHILE IT is the task of every diplomat to defend his home
country, Bigot does not adopt an ostrich policy when it comes to acknowledging
Although France has one of the toughest legislations
against anti-Semitism, Bigot acknowledged that “there is anti- Semitism in
France. I have condemned it.
It is a shame for our country.”
the same time, he disputed a widely held conviction that there was been a surge
of immigration to Israel prompted by anti-Semitism. “I hope French Jews coming
to Israel are coming for ideological reasons and a love for Zionism,” he
He expressed certainty that if they came for positive rather than
negative reasons, their aliya would be more successful. He also contended that
there was no significant increase in French aliya figures.
It would have
been remiss on the part of any journalist interviewing Bigot at this time to
avoid asking him about the new EU guidelines dictating that there will be no
grants or other funding to Israeli entities beyond the 1967 borders – France,
after all, was a founding member state of the EU.
Bigot was expecting the
question and had prepared an answer. It’s not really a new decision, he said. At
least as far as France is concerned, this has been the policy since
“Are we providing loans and grants to any entity beyond the ’67
lines?” he asked rhetorically. There is a clear difference between the borders
of Israel pre- 1967 and any action beyond those lines, he added.
was quick to qualify that Paris does not align itself with calls for a boycott
“In France, a boycott is forbidden by law, and those who
promote boycott are prosecuted.”
France wholeheartedly supports the peace
endeavors of US Secretary of State John Kerry, he said, and he also has the
support of the EU.
Bigot said he was optimistic that a peace agreement
can be reached. He has been visiting Israel and the Palestinian Authority since
1995, and has had extensive discussions with both sides. He believed there were
strong majorities among both the Israelis and the Palestinians in favor of peace
who knew the price of peace.
But before any last agreement, he said,
there would have to be a move to restore confidence between the two sides, and
the peace agreement would have to be viable.
France understood Israel’s
security concerns, he asserted.
“Security for France is not just a word,”
he said, citing French UNIFIL contingents in the region and French forces in
Afghanistan and Libya.
From all that he has seen and heard, Bigot said,
he could not envisage any way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict other
than the two-state solution.
Asked about France’s future relations with
Iran – especially in view of the fact that both President Francois Hollande and
Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius have expressed a willingness to work with
president- elect Hassan Rouhani – Bigot reiterated France’s commitment to
prevent a nuclear Iran.
“We are aware of the risks of a nuclear Iran,” he
said. “We will judge the new president on how he acts. We are not naïve on this
issue. Israel is not alone.
Israel has friends. We think it is a threat
to the whole non-proliferation region.
We’ll be very active on sanctions
and on discussions with Iran.”
At the Bastille Day reception at his home
on Sunday night, Bigot was accorded high praise by Peres.
“I knew that
Peres was in love with France since the 1950s,” Bigot responded, remarking that
Peres was the first Israeli presidents to pay two official visits to France.
“He’s a man of vision and he’s so sweet with my kids,” said Bigot. Peres was “a
very loyal friend” with a good knowledge of all the leaders of France, to the
extent that he’s on a first-name basis with all of them, added the outgoing
Asked about a quip someone had made that Bigot was more an
ambassador for Israel than to Israel. Bigot laughed and said that he and Yossi
Gal, the Israeli ambassador to France, had worked to create a special
relationship between their two countries, and so far, they have
But neither has usurped the position of the
“He’s the Israel ambassador to France, and I’m the French
ambassador to Israel.”