France on Wednesday became the latest Western country to reject accusations that Israel is committing genocide against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, a charge that was recently brought before a United Nations court in The Hague.
Stéphane Séjourné, France’s newly appointed foreign minister, told lawmakers in France’s lower house of Parliament that “the rule of law applies to all, and systematic strikes in Gaza must cease.”
But, Mr. Séjourné added, “words have meaning.”
“To accuse the Jewish state of genocide is to cross a moral threshold,” he said. “The notion of genocide cannot be exploited for political ends. This has always been our position.”
Israel is facing the charge of genocide at the International Court of Justice, where South Africa has brought a case arguing that Israel “means to create conditions of death” in Gaza and demanding that the court order an emergency suspension of the military campaign there. The Israeli authorities deny the accusation.
South Africa has won praise at home and from other countries for challenging what they see as a Western-led global order that is biased toward Israel.
The United States has called the case meritless, and several European countries have rejected it too. Germany, which intervened in the case as a third party in Israel’s favor, said that there is “no basis whatsoever” to South Africa’s claim. Israel was founded in the aftermath of the Nazi-led genocide of European Jewry, and Germany has rooted much of its post-Holocaust identity in the idea of supporting the Jewish state.
President Emmanuel Macron of France did not mention South Africa’s case during a wide-ranging news conference on Tuesday, but he said that “all lives are equal” and that many in France were “shaken” by the plight of civilians in Gaza.
“The priority is the cease-fire,” said Mr. Macron, blaming Hamas for using civilian as “shields” and saying Israel had the right to defend itself. But he argued that Israel should follow humanitarian law by prioritizing “targeted operations” over broad bombardments.
“And I say this because it is also in Israel’s long-term security interests,” he said. “Continuing operations the way they are currently being carried out is to take a risk — including in the long-term, given the impact it is having in the whole region — for the very security of Israel.”
France, home to some of Europe’s largest Jewish and Muslim communities, has seen fierce debates over the conflict in Gaza, including within its top diplomatic ranks. In November, a dozen French ambassadors in Middle East and North Africa countries expressed unease over Macron’s perceived pro-Israeli stance.
Mr. Séjourné’s comments on Wednesday came in response to a question from Danièle Obono, a lawmaker for the leftist France Unbowed party who argued that “if it wants to be consistent with its values, France must urgently follow South Africa’s lead.”
“History is watching us, and it won’t be kind to those who knew and did nothing,” she said.
Mr. Séjourné shot back that “we don’t need any lessons from your party,” as France Unbowed has faced intense criticism for refusing to call Hamas a terrorist group. “That’s the scandal, Ms. Obono,” he said.