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Where Britain, France and Germany stand on the Israel-Hamas war

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Let's look at how the war between Israel and Hamas is perceived outside the Middle East or the United States, specifically in Europe, where politics and culture were heavily shaped by war in the 20th century. Joining us are three NPR correspondents - Lauren Frayer in London, Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and Rob Schmitz in Berlin. Hi to all of you.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Hi, Juana.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Hello.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Hello, Juana.

SUMMERS: So all three governments where you are are firm supporters of Israel's right to exist, but each is also facing domestic criticism of that support. What does that look like where you are? And, Lauren, I want to start with you in London.

FRAYER: Yeah. So London has filled with, like, more than a hundred thousand people at these pro-Palestinian rallies every Saturday since the war broke out. They've been largely peaceful. There have been about a hundred arrests over the past month for things like breaching public safety and inciting violence. And today the hardline home secretary - the government here is ruled by the Conservative Party - called these protests hate marches. And she's actually asked police to arrest more of the protesters, tweak the law if need be, redefine what free speech means, what extremism means under U.K. law. And let me just talk you through an example. This is the sound of a sort of boisterous crowd on a London subway train on their way to a pro-Palestinian rally last week.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED TRAIN CONDUCTOR: Free, free.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED TRAIN CONDUCTOR: Free, free.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Palestine.

UNIDENTIFIED TRAIN CONDUCTOR: Hope you all have a pleasant day.

FRAYER: And the guy saying free, free is actually the train conductor, like, on the PA system. And then he ends with, oh, have a pleasant day. Look after yourselves. Be safe out there. But he was suspended from his job for taking part in that protest.

SCHMITZ: And, Juana, this is Rob in Berlin. You know, if a train conductor said that here in Germany, he'd not only be fired, but he might be criminally prosecuted for hate speech. Here in Berlin, all pro-Palestinian rallies are banned. Schools have banned Palestinian flags, the Palestinian headdress, the keffiyeh, which is sort of a hipster accessory that a lot of teenagers wear because it's getting cold out here as scarves. But they can't wear them anymore. You know, and the reason that Germany is so strict about this is because of the German concept of (speaking German). And this literally means reason of state. And it means that because of the atrocities that Germany committed against Jews in World War II, the existence and security of Israel is connected to the foundation of modern Germany. And that's why Germany is taking these protests so seriously.

SUMMERS: And, Eleanor, you're in Paris. What about France is different in how it approaches the war in Israel and Gaza?

BEARDSLEY: Yeah, I think France is somewhere in between these two examples we've just had. You know, France actually has the largest Muslim and Jewish populations in Europe. So Macron - President Emmanuel Macron is trying to have somewhat of a balanced approach. So, of course, France condemned the Hamas terrorist attacks and supports Israel's right to defend itself. But he's trying to also call for a humanitarian truce to get aid through. You know, Macron is under a lot of pressure. Thirty-five French citizens were killed in that Hamas attack, and that's more than any other foreign nation, I believe, even the U.S. Several more are being held hostage. And pro-Palestinian demonstrations have been banned here for fear of violence.

SUMMERS: And, Eleanor, I understand that French President Emmanuel Macron was in Israel last week. What is he hoping to accomplish?

BEARDSLEY: Well, he wants to see the two-state solution revived. He said, just because it's an old idea doesn't mean it's defunct. So he did visit, you know, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But he also visited Mahmoud Abbas, head of the Palestinian Authority, and the president of Egypt and the king of Jordan. He wants something to move besides violence. He wants this violence - this cycle that we keep seeing to end because it often reverberates back in France.

FRAYER: I think we've seen, like, a lot of European politicians doing that sort of circuit. I mean, the U.K. prime minister, Rishi Sunak, went to Israel, went to Saudi earlier this month. The U.K. foreign minister is in the region there today. He's already been, like, a few times since the war began on October 7. So, like, a flurry of diplomacy for sure. But, I mean, at least in the U.K., it's unclear what power the U.K. really has. It does have, like, deep historical links to the region of British Mandate Palestine before, you know, the establishment of the state of Israel. But, you know, the U.K. is a supplier of weapons to Israel. And just like Eleanor said, you know, the U.K. has stopped short of calling for a cease-fire and has absolutely, like, thrown its backing behind Israel. I mean, some of this travel is a little bit like, you know, looking statesman-like. A U.K. election is coming next year. But it's unclear what power these politicians really have to change facts on the ground.

SUMMERS: And, Rob, what about in Germany? What would the German government like to see happen in this war?

SCHMITZ: Well, Chancellor Olaf Scholz has been very firm in his opinion that Israel has a right to defend itself. But that's the extent of his comments. He also supported the European Union's stance released last week in a communique that called for, quote, "humanitarian pauses" in the conflict so that people in Gaza could receive humanitarian assistance. The EU is one of the biggest funders of aid to the Palestinian territories, and Germany gives around $20 million a year. So this is a priority, too, for Germany. But Germany, also, like the U.S., sells weapons to Israel, weapons that are now being used against Palestinians.

SUMMERS: I mean, this war has touched so many people in so many places in unexpected ways. Lauren, in Britain, is public opinion changing as Israel continues its offensive in Gaza?

FRAYER: Yeah, there was a poll recently that showed 89% of Britons support a cease-fire. But the U.K. government and both main political parties in Britain have stopped short of calling for a cease-fire. There's been a big backlash within the opposition Labour Party. Two dozen party officials resigned in protest. Big names like London Mayor Sadiq Khan, Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham are going ahead and calling for a cease-fire, breaking with their party leadership. And one of the biggest names calling for a cease-fire here is the top politician in Scotland. His name is Humza Yousaf, and his in-laws are trapped in Gaza right now. Here's what he told a U.K. TV channel.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUMZA YOUSAF: I think the U.K.'s position is a shameful abdication of their moral responsibility. You know, when spoke to my mother-in-law last, she told me that she felt completely abandoned by the U.K. government and, you know, how many more children have to die?

FRAYER: So he's one of the strongest voices calling for a cease-fire here, and he has a very personal connection to Gaza.

SUMMERS: Eleanor, I want to ask you the same question. How is public opinion changing in France?

BEARDSLEY: So after the Hamas attacks on Israel, there was huge condemnation from France. People were very sympathetic because, as you may remember, France had two massive terrorist attacks in 2015. So people felt a lot of sympathy. But as this bombing goes on, Juana, of Gaza, things are getting difficult. There have been 800 antisemitic acts since October 7. That's double the number from the entire year of 2022. So Jewish people are nervous.

SUMMERS: And finally, to you, Rob, is the war having any impact on German policy toward Israel?

SCHMITZ: I think it's probably strengthening Germany's position in defending Israel. There are several European leaders that have spoken out against Israel's cutting off of water and supply lines to Gaza. But Chancellor Olaf Scholz has refrained from this criticism. Instead, he says that Israel is a democratic state guided by humanitarian principles. And because of that, he believes the Israeli army will also observe the rules that follow international laws. So, you know, this view sounds, to some, probably a little naive, and it's definitely a bit isolated when compared to the view of other EU leaders. And it's rooted really in Scholz's cautious approach to Israel that is really guided by what he sees as Germany's historic responsibility towards Israel.

SUMMERS: That's NPR's Rob Schmitz in Berlin, Eleanor Beardsley in Paris and Lauren Frayer in London. Thanks to all of you.

SCHMITZ: Thanks.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

FRAYER: Thanks for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.
Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.
Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.