Macron is first French leader in over 20 years to visit Western Wall

The Western Wall, one of Judaism’s most holy sites after the Temple Mount, is politically significant because it is located in east Jerusalem.

French President Emmanuel Macron visiting the Western Wall (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
French President Emmanuel Macron visiting the Western Wall
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
French President Emmanuel Macron stood before the ancient stones of Jerusalem’s Western Wall on Wednesday, marking the first such high-level visit since former French president Jacques Chirac’s tense trip to the Old City in 1996.
The Western Wall is part of Judaism’s most holy site, the Temple Mount, and is the only remaining part of the Jewish Temple compound that stood there before it was destroyed 2,000 years ago.
But its location in eastern Jerusalem, abutting Islam’s third-most holy site, al-Haram al-Sharif, also makes it the most politically sensitive site in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Visits there by heads of state are rare because they were seen as tacit recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the site. Such visits, however, have become more acceptable since US President Donald Trump went to the Western Wall in 2017, becoming the first American president to do so while in office.
Still, it is unusual for a Western European head of state to go to the Western Wall. Macron’s visit was particularly striking because he has been highly critical of Israeli sovereignty in east Jerusalem and its military control of Area C of the West Bank.
On Wednesday, however, he braved the rain and winds to place his hands on the Wall’s ancient crevices.
“I feel the holiness and the history here,” Macron said.
Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who is in charge of the site, thanked Macron for coming and told him it conveyed appreciation for the Jewish nation’s history and heritage, of which France is a part. According to a press release put out by the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Rabinowitz explained the power of the site for every Jew around the world, explaining that synagogues, including in France, face Jerusalem and the Western Wall.
Macron also visited al-Haram ash-Sharif compound on the Temple Mount, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Crusader-era Church of St. Anne, which was gifted by the Ottomans to French Emperor Napoleon III in 1856. Neither Israeli nor Palestinian officials were with him at the Western Wall or on the Temple Mount.
The St. Anne visit was a symbolic stop underscoring France’s historic influence in the region, in which Paris still considers itself to be an important player.
An altercation broke out between Macron and Israeli security services outside St. Anne’s, which was caught on video and widely distributed over social media.
Video showed Macron jostled in the center of a crowded circle between his own protective detail and Israeli security personnel, including several paramilitary policemen in uniform, under an archway leading into the church.
Macron then stopped the shoving and shouted at the Israeli security guards in English: “I don’t like what you did in front of me.”
Lowering his voice, he then said: “Go outside. I’m sorry. You know the rules. Nobody has to provoke nobody.”
Speaking later to reporters, Macron said the incident ended pleasantly and that he shook hands with the Israeli security officials.
Israeli police said that when Macron arrived at the church, “there was a discussion” between Israeli and French security officers about entering with the president.
“When the president and the delegation finished the visit, he apologized about the incident and shook hands with the security personnel,” a police statement said.
Chirac had a similar experience in 1996, when he lost patience with Israeli security agents at the same church, telling one of them that his treatment was a “provocation” and threatening to get back on his plane. Chirac refused to enter St. Anne until Israeli security left the site.
Macron’s Temple Mount and Western Wall visits passed much more quietly.
On the Temple Mount, the French leader was received by the director of the Wakf Islamic religious trust, Azzam al-Khatib, and Omar Kisswani, director of al-Aqsa Mosque.
The Wakf said that Macron’s visit was arranged at the request of the French Consulate-General in Jerusalem in coordination with the Wakf and without the intervention of any other party.
Khatib briefed Macron on the history of the holy site and Israeli “assaults” on the Temple Mount, Palestinian sources said, referring to visits by Jews to the site.
The Wakf and Palestinian Authority officials are strongly opposed to the Jewish visits, describing them as “violent invasions by extremist Jewish settlers into the Aqsa Mosque compound.”
At the Western Wall, Macron was accompanied by Rabinowitz and the site’s director, Mordechai (Suli) Eliav.
According the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, Macron met with a French lone soldier and said a prayer at the Wall. Eliav spoke with him about the history of the site. He was also shown the recent excavations at the Western Wall Plaza.
Macron is in Israel to attend the Fifth World Holocaust Forum. Other visiting heads of state also stopped at the Western Wall on Wednesday including: President Guoni Th. Jóhannesson of Iceland, President Zeljko Komsic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and President Salome Zourabichvili of Georgia.
Reuters contributed to this report.