France’s President Emmanuel Macron was filmed yesterday telling Israeli security guards to get “outside” after they tried to enter a Catholic Church in Jerusalem.
“Please respect the rules,” he told the men in the Church of St Anne: “They [have existed] for centuries. They will not change with me.”
For those wondering what is going on, France owns the church, or at least claims to, having been given it by the Ottomans after the Crimean War. Israel, for its part, has a complex relationship with the Catholic Church because of disagreements over property rights (and the whole centuries of anti-Semitism thing). The Church of St Anne is also in east Jerusalem, which Israel claims as its own but which France — like most countries — regards as occupied territory.
Macron’s row — a repeat of a similar argument involving his predecessor Jacques Chirac — illustrates an essential cultural difference between Britain and France, and the latter’s appreciation of tradition and history. Somehow I just can’t imagine any British leader going on such a tour, nor getting involved in an incident over a historic place of worship.
France has historically considered itself the protector of Middle Eastern Catholics, while Russia saw itself as defender of the Orthodox. In recent years such a notion has gone out of fashion in the west — terrified of being compared to the hooligans and fanatics who comprised the crusaders — but it’s far more controversial in the Anglo world. Nigel Farage’s suggestion that we might prioritise Christian refugees from Syria was roundly condemned, while the United States has employed a religiously-neutral refugee policy that, for various practical and logistical reasons, actually discriminates against Christians.
France, however, has maintained some of its old role as protector. After the horrific 2010 Baghdad church massacre it welcomed the survivors, and again in 2014 the country did more to accept Iraqi Christian refugees than Britain, even though we have much closer historical relations with Iraq and were involved in the whole 2003 disaster.
This is partly because the French just have a stronger sense of history, illustrated two years ago when Emmanuel Macron became the “first and only honorary canon” of the Basilica of St John Lateran in Rome while on a trip to meet the Pope.
The title dates back to the 15th century, and the reign of Louis XI — nicknamed “the universal spider” for his network of spies — but previous presidents have declined it because the French Republic has a difficult relationship with the Church.
Yet despite France being more aggressively secular than Britain, they paradoxically take religion — and therefore history — more seriously. Very few British politicians would know or care about the significance of religion, and in the Middle East have a very unthinking and basic anti or pro-Israeli opinion based on whether they’re Left or Right. How many Anglo politicians are even aware that a lot of Palestinians are Christians? Ted Cruz clearly didn’t.
Anyway, I’m looking forward to Macron adopting the title Roi Très-chrétien as well as President of France, co-prince of Andorra and Defender of the Holy Sepulchre.