Orange logo covered with Israeli flag.
(photo credit: PARTNER WORKERS UNION)
The seemingly contradictory statements over the past few days by Orange CEO Stéphane Richard made an impression amid most French pundits that the BDS movement has scored several points this time around.
In the space of four days, Richard allegedly supported the idea of boycotting Israel, retracted by claiming Orange would like to sever its ties with Israel on a commercial basis only, and then pulled back again by announcing how Orange “loves Israel” and that it has no intention of leaving. Orange reverted to its original position, but the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement succeeded, media-wise, to push its agenda onto the table of European leaders.
Some commentators in France tried to belittle the significance of Orange’s declarations.
They said Orange has merely clumsily exposed a strategic business decision, favoring direct presence worldwide, against selling its trademark to local companies – which is the case in Israel.
According to this view, it would be natural for Orange, which has greatly expanded over the past few years, to prefer operating abroad by itself with its own staff and resources, and not through local operators.
But this remained a minority viewpoint. French media in general did not seem convinced by Richard’s latest statement, including his interview to Yediot Aharonot.
On Saturday, Le Monde published a long article concerning Israel’s battle against BDS.
Other French media outlets analyzed the ramifications of an increased boycott movement on Israeli policy.
In other words, few French pundits bought into Orange’s explanation, claiming a decision to eventually pull out of Israel would be a strategic one, and not politically motivated.
The belated reaction of Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius demonstrated those same beliefs clearly, both in words and in timing. On Friday morning, almost two days after the original declarations of Richard in Cairo, Fabius released a first official statement, saying that “although it is for the president of the Orange Group to determine the commercial strategy of the company, France is firmly opposed to a boycott of Israel.” The statement referred to the French and European general position on settlement building, “that is known to all.”
As said previously, Fabius’s ministry took its time responding to the saga.
Throughout Thursday, diplomats were in contact with Orange heads on one side, the Israeli Embassy in Paris on the other. The response that was eventually published on Friday, was short but to the point, signaling that France rejected the Israel boycott campaign. The French Foreign Ministry grasped the magnitude of Israeli reactions to Richard’s comments, and responded to that issue.
The Orange affair exploded at the worst possible moment, as far as Fabius was concerned. He is scheduled to arrive in Israel and visit the West Bank on June 21 or 22 carrying one message only – that of the French proposal for a UN resolution to define an 18-month framework for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. So far, Paris has discussed this proposal mainly with the Arab League and Washington. The French are set to present their draft to the UN Security Council right after June 30 – the deadline for negotiations with Iran; hence the urgency to officially discuss it with Jerusalem.
Obviously, the Orange affair was not constructive in preparing such a delicate diplomatic visit. The ministry hopes that its clear rejection of the boycott concept, combined with Richard’s recent soothing words, would calm the current atmosphere.
Pushing the boycott threat in front of Israeli eyes might have served as a warning call to the Israeli public, but even Paris feels that this call, just now, was not the most diplomatic or productive one.