French Perspectives on Israel-Hezbollah Tensions

ByClément Therme

French policy toward Israel-Hezbollah tensions emphasizes de-escalation and stability in the region. French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné has actively sought to reduce hostilities through diplomatic efforts, including a visit to Lebanon in April 2024 where he called for both Israel and Hezbollah to step back from continued conflict since October 7, 2023. The French government has proposed a plan that involves the redeployment of the Lebanese army to the southern border area and a reduction of Hezbollah’s military presence there. This plan is grounded in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701, which calls for the disarmament of all militias in southern Lebanon except the Lebanese army and state security forces. On April 18, 2024, after a French initiative, the countries of the European Union adopted a common position on Lebanon, while the next day, French President Emmanuel Macron received Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Lebanese Armed Forces Commander General Joseph Aoun, whom France would like to see play a major role in southern Lebanon in place of Hezbollah fighters.

Like the United States, which is its main arms supplier, Paris is campaigning for the Lebanese army to take charge of security in southern Lebanon, the historic stronghold of Hezbollah where some of its weapons are hidden. UNIFIL (United Nations Interim Force), in which Paris has 700 soldiers, would support the Lebanese army in this new task of securing the south. In March 2024, France proposed “new security arrangements” between Hezbollah and Israel. These arrangements are similar to those proposed by the United States, which essentially aim at the application of UN Resolution 1701, adopted at the end of the previous war between Israel and Hezbollah in the summer of 2006, but never strictly applied by either side. The French initiative is seen as a practical framework to implement the UN resolution fully, with an aim to stabilize the region and prevent a full-scale war similar to the 2006 conflict. Lebanese leaders, including Prime Minister Mikati and Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri, have expressed support for the initiative and commitment to the UN resolution, while also urging Israel to cease its aggressive actions in southern Lebanon​. Nevertheless, prior to its acceptance of the French offer, Hezbollah demands a ceasefire in Gaza between Israel and its Palestinian ally Hamas.

Additionally, France has been coordinating closely with the United States to present a unified front in diplomatic efforts, focusing on immediate de-escalation measures and preparing for a ceasefire in Gaza that would pave the way for broader peace initiatives between Israel and Hezbollah​​. This diplomatic approach underscores France’s broader strategy of fostering regional stability while addressing the underlying political and security dynamics that fuel the conflict.

Following the recent rise in tensions between Hezbollah and Israel, Canada, the UK and Germany have advised their nationals to leave the country as soon as possible. Berlin is worried about an “increased risk of terrorist attacks” which could target Western foreigners or large hotels. On June 27, 2024, the United States and Russia called on their citizens not to go there. France says it is “extremely concerned by the seriousness of the situation,” noting the “dramatic” intensification of violence on the border with Israel. Some 23,000 French people currently live in Lebanon. Christophe Lemoine, the deputy spokesperson for the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs, called on all parties to “show the utmost restraint and to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1701.”

“No one has any interest in Israel and Hezbollah continuing this escalation,” warned Stéphane Séjourné during his visit to Beirut and Jerusalem in April 2024. France’s capability to avoid an escalation in tensions between Israel and Hezbollah remains limited. Indeed, even if France’s weight has been reduced in the Middle East in general, Lebanon remains the only issue over which Paris retains a certain influence. An influence that it must however share with the United States, whose emissary, Amos Hochstein, is also active between Tel Aviv and Beirut to de-escalate the situation. The Paris emissary to Lebanon, Jean-Yves le Drian, met with a political leader of Hezbollah, something his US counterpart cannot do. But the environment is not conducive to a rapid de-escalation.

On the Hezbollah side, there is the link established by the head of the organization, Hassan Nasrallah, between the two fronts, Gaza and southern Lebanon: if there is no ceasefire in Gaza, Hezbollah’s military activity will continue in support of Hamas. Former French Foreign Minister le Drian tried to disconnect the two issues. His efforts were unsuccessful because of the regional posture of Hezbollah and the broader Iranian regional strategy. Eventually, despite the defeat of President Macron’s political party, Lebanon will remain a French priority in the broader French Middle East strategy. Nevertheless, if the far-right party can choose a new prime minister, a pro-Israeli turn is expected. On the contrary, a majority dominated by a leftist coalition will recognize the State of Palestine and will promote the return of the traditional French Arab policy that prevailed until the pro-Israeli turn during the Sarkozy presidency (2007-12). After the first round of the legislative election, the most probable scenario is a new Parliament without a majority: in this hypothesis, French Lebanese policy will remain unchanged under a coalition government for the next year. If the far-right prevails in the second round of the election next week, Paris will focus on supporting Israel and abandon the balanced policy between preserving the stability of Lebanon and supporting the alliance with Israel. This pro-Israel shift will affect the French diplomatic strategy toward Hezbollah: the new far-right prime minister will probably sever all contact with Hezbollah. This new Lebanese strategy could focus on promoting a more proactive anti-Hezbollah agenda in Lebanon under the banner of the fight against “terrorism.”

Overall, French Lebanese policy is important because Paris is willing to talk to all Lebanese political actors. Nevertheless, the current military escalation depends more on internal political factors in Lebanon and Israel. The most important aspect of French mediation efforts is to provide a diplomatic platform to preserve a political space to avoid further military escalation.

 Opinions in this article reflect the writer’s point of view, not necessarily the view of Rasanah

Clément Therme
Clément Therme
a non-resident fellow at Rasanah-IIIS and a Research Associate at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS) in Paris.