Interview: The French ambassador who loves Israel

"We are not foreign states to each other," Christophe Bigot tells "The Jerusalem Post"

French Ambassador to Israel CHRISTOPHE BIGOT370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
French Ambassador to Israel CHRISTOPHE BIGOT370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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.
For 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 indifference.
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’s release.
Schalit is a French-Israeli dual national.
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.
Bigot 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.
“When you 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 killed.”
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 country.
A more recent tragedy for France’s Jews was the terror attack in Toulouse, in which a terrorist murdered three children and a teacher.
The 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 intolerance.”
When communities in the South were subjected to missiles from Gaza, Bigot paid a visit to the region to show solidarity.
When he 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,” he recalled.
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 France’s flaws.
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.”
At 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 said.
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 1967.
“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.
But he was quick to qualify that Paris does not align itself with calls for a boycott of Israel.
“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 ambassador.
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 succeeded.
But neither has usurped the position of the other.
“He’s the Israel ambassador to France, and I’m the French ambassador to Israel.”