The new French ambassador to Israel, Patrick Maisonnave, landed in Tel Aviv the day after his fiftieth birthday. The French Foreign Ministry arranged an ideal change of scenery for the new ambassador. The impressive-looking Maisonnave chose to come here, as he is familiar with the complicated -- some would say love-hate -- relationship between France and Israel.
Ambassador, what, in your opinion, is the thing that most perturbs Israelis?
"Without a doubt, Israel's future. It is for this reason that Israel's governments emphasize the issue of the country's security. We are talking about a complicated region that is constantly changing.
"Aside from that, the state of Israel is also undergoing a process that allows it to better understand its advantages, which are significant. We are talking about a prosperous country, with a strong capability in the field of technological innovation and high tech, that invests in research and knowledge. All this forms a solid foundation on which to build the country's future."
From Israel's perspective, the Iranian nuclear project is an existential dilemma. In October 2009, the Geneva nuclear talks were renewed and Paris was skeptical -- what about today?
"The stance of the French government today with regards to Iran is a pragmatic stance. We have always said that we support a diplomatic solution to the problem. President [Hasan] Rouhani was elected in a unique context, in which the economy and the society in Iran are suffering in an extreme way from the force of the sanctions imposed by the Security Council. This is the main explanation for why Rouhani came to the [U.N. General] Assembly with a new style, a new dialogue and with a greater will than in the past to go to serious negotiations with the international community."
Maisonnave said that he heard President Shimon Peres -- "whom I respect very much" -- say that we should give a chance to the negotiations that recently began: "I heard your prime minister, who is also a person we very much respect, say that we should not confuse appearance and reality; and that is exactly what our foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, said. He recalled that France is itself responsible and has been very involved in the Iranian issue from the beginning, and he himself said that we must not confuse appearance with reality."
According to Maisonnave, the time to lift sanctions on Iran has not yet arrived. "The talks with Iran have a defined framework that the Iranians of course know and respect," he said. "The Iranians came with very serious intentions. The prevailing feeling after the end of the first meeting in Geneva is that the Iranians came with concrete proposals. For example, the Iranian foreign minister indeed presented several proposals at the meeting in Geneva. Of course it is too early to arrive at a conclusion that would make these proposals the basis for an agreement. We are not there yet.
"We are aware that we are at the beginning of a cycle of rounds of talks, but this is a new cycle, during which concrete proposals will be examined. Without going into the details of the talks, I can say that the Iranians came with serious proposals. It's important to pay attention that, in contrast with previous rounds, at the moment we are dealing less with words and speeches and more with deeds. And the reality is well known by experts: the question of the right of enrichment, the question about the future of the Iranian facilities in Fordo and Natanz and the very important question about the reactor in Arak. In light of these proposals, we will need to determine if there is a basis for consensus or not."
Is Paris prepared to accept Iranian enrichment of uranium, even to a level of 3.5 percent?
"The question is, is Iran trustworthy, are they serious about their proposal. From our perspective, and it is known that on this topic we have always taken into full account the stance of our Israeli friends -- the sanctions are working, and that is the reason why the Iranians have now come with more serious proposals than what we have seen in the past, and so, what is important to us, as I mentioned earlier, is a diplomatic solution."
"Without Assad's presence"
Despite the conciliatory approach, the French ambassador claims that France is not ruling out other options. "We take our Israeli friends very seriously when they say that there may be a military option if the talks with Iran lead to what Israel sees as a bad deal. Despite that, we are certainly interested in a diplomatic arrangement that will take into account all the information on the table. Until now, the question about the right to enrich is not on the table, and the Security Council decisions on the topic are completely clear. In any case, our determination is uncompromising. It is our duty to prevent Iran from becoming equipped with nuclear weapons."
Do you foresee a chance of negotiations with the Palestinians moving forward?
"I hope there is a chance. Israel, in my eyes, is in a strong position today. Israel is an oasis of peace, democracy and prosperity, in a region characterized by difficulties, with which you are of course familiar. I hope that the talks with the Palestinians will bring about results. I hope that the Israeli government will have the courage and the ambition to see the talks that recently began through to the end."
Since the changes brought about by the 'Arab Spring,' it is no longer certain that Israel still lives in a secure area.
"I believe that the agreement reached by the United States, which was expressed in the dismantling of the chemical weapons stockpiles in Syria, is something that will without a doubt contribute to Israel's security. Additionally, the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood fell from power in Cairo also allows for the feeling of security and calm that Israel needs."
Regarding Syria, were French planes really prepared to attack after Assad's use of chemical weapons in August?
"The president of France expressed this very clearly. Yes, we were prepared to act. Of course, with additional partners. I think France's determination in this case was absolute. France's determination, and the determination of the additional partners, to put the option of military action on the table influenced the development of the situation in Syria. The agreement reached on September 15 between the United States and Russia would not have happened without that determination."
That same agreement allowed for Assad's survival. Now he has declared that he intends to run in the upcoming elections.
"Assad has always said that he would run for the presidency again. This is not new. We clearly hear the concerns, which have been expressed both here and there, that the agreement on the chemical weapons may have contributed to renewed legitimization of Bashar Assad. However, from our perspective, and this has been said strongly by the French government, it is clear that the purpose of the second conference in Geneva is to establish a transitional political body with executive authority, and of course, without Bashar Assad's presence."
Does France believe Assad?
"France believes facts. The facts are that, regarding the topic of chemical weapons, there is now a team of inspectors. There is a joint team from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations, and it is present in the field and visited several of the sites, and its existence was revealed by the Syrian authorities themselves. To the best of my knowledge, the team has already visited 11 or 12 sites, the inventory of all the materials was recorded, and the necessary steps to destroy the materials are being taken."
'Vote to stop extremists'
Maisonnave is aware of the special relationship between France and Israel. "It is not a calm and tranquil river," he said with a smile. "But the relationship is good. If we try for a moment to rise above the diplomatic view of things, there is no doubt that the relationship is complex, yet both nations benefit from the complexity.
"It's true that prior to 1967 France was a central partner of Israel's, particularly on security issues -- Mirage fighter jets, Dimona and the like -- but my point of reference, as someone born in 1963, is what happened after 1967. That being a rich relationship with great potential. We speak to each other a lot, there are discussions about topics that affect all of us, that are related to international stability and security."
Maisonnave then mentioned the tragedy of the massacre at a Jewish school in Toulouse, which according to him, "left a deep mark on France. Every time there is an anti-Semitic incident in France, some of our partners ask themselves: 'What is France? Is it an anti-Semitic country?' And if it is, what is the relationship between France and Israel worth? So it is a complex relationship."
You mentioned Toulouse. Do Jews in France still need to be concerned about the Muslims that live in Europe or about the rise of the extreme Right in Europe, considering the outcome of this month's election in the town of Brignoles, where the candidate from the National Front was elected?
"I think the only answer to this question -- in an open, globalized world, where something that happens in one corner of the world automatically has implications for other countries -- is democracy. And of course, the French government's absolute commitment to fighting anti-Semitism in any form. Of course, there are also problems in democracies. Since you brought up that election as an example, I think that the only real answer, and the only guarantee that can be given to the Jews of France who may feel threatened, is that the French people will vote in the upcoming local and European elections in 2014, because at the end of the day, the danger is that extremism in France will be fed by avoiding voting in the elections. I think we must fight extremism, like in every democracy, at the polls, and I hope the French will enlist and go to vote in order to stop the extremists."
The foundations of the conflict at age 10
The American ambassador was reprimanded this week at the French foreign ministry. How serious is this?
"We live in an open world in which the media has a very central role. This refers to news leaks as in the Snowden Affair, which follow prior leaks from a few months ago. What we repeated to the American ambassador is that these actions are not acceptable between partners and between allies. Obviously France cannot agree with a situation like this."
With the beginning of his new demanding role, the French ambassador has started learning Hebrew. Is it a difficult language? "Definitely," he said with a smile. "I'm not sure I will be able to become fluent in reading and writing, but I hope that in a few months, when we meet again, I will already be able to speak with you, and not just the basics, but about complicated things, in your language."
Were you interested in Israel or the Jewish people before you came here?
"As I said, I was born in 1963. My first memories as a boy opening his eyes to the world, were from Black September in 1970, and later from Munich in 1972 and the murder of the athletes. I vividly remember the pictures from Munich and my father explaining the conflict, and after, the oil crisis.
"There are of course other events, Armstrong on the moon in 1969, and more. But when I try to recall the first memories I have from the international actuality -- most of them are tied to the Middle East. In 1992 I joined the Foreign Ministry. A year later were the Oslo Accords. The things that left an impression on me then, as I said, in my personal experience, in my childhood, at the moment when I chose a career in diplomacy, were the things that happened in the Middle East. That's a fact."
And then they told you at the foreign ministry that you would be going to work in Tel Aviv.
"This is the job I wanted. The happiness I felt on the day I was told I was chosen for the role was so great. "
He arrived in Israel with his wife Anne, and with his 10-year-old twins. He has three older children who stayed behind in Paris.
France is known for its culinary prowess, so it was fitting to ask if the ambassador had an opportunity to sample Israeli cuisine.
"There's something really nice that I forgot the name of, and you will definitely tell me. It's something you eat for breakfast on a base of tomatoes and with hard-boiled eggs."
"Exactly, it's a delicacy," he said, smiling excitedly.