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French vote on Palestinian statehood takes bumpier route to 'oui'

The National Assembly's non-binding vote to urge recognition of a Palestinian state passed 339 to 151, a significantly smaller margin of victory than in similar recent votes elsewhere in Europe.

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An electronic board shows the results of today's vote on Palestine status at the National Assembly in Paris. French lawmakers voted in favor of recognizing Palestine as a state on Tuesday, a symbolic move that demonstrates growing European impatience with a stalled peace process.

Charles Platiau/Reuters

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The non-binding vote in France’s National Assembly today to urge the French government to recognize Palestine as a state is not the first of its kind in Europe. But in many ways it is the most significant and the most fraught.

France is home to both the largest Jewish and the largest Muslim communities in Europe, and balancing the interests and tensions between them is a sensitive affair. This summer, when protests broke out over Israel’s actions in Gaza, the French government found itself in the middle. In an effort to avert violence and worrisome signs of anti-Semitism, it preemptively canceled some pro-Palestinian gatherings, provoking criticism that the government sides with Israel.  

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One of the key points of concern raised by Jewish organizations in France over the vote today is that a vote in favor undoes Israel’s confidence in France and risks undermining France’s diplomatic role in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had warned that a vote in favor would be a “grave mistake.”

The motion today, which asks the French government to "use the recognition of a Palestinian state with the aim of resolving the conflict definitively,” follows similar moves in Britain and Spain, as well as the formal recognition of Palestine in Sweden. 

It passed with 339 lawmakers voting in favor, 151 against it.

It is a clear vote of support for a two-state solution, and illustrates the frustration across Europe over failure to reach a deal.  But the non-binding vote did not pass as handily as it did in Britain, where legislators in the House of Commons voted 274 to 12. In Spain a similar vote was nearly unanimous last month. In Ireland a motion was unanimously supported.

As the debate opened Friday, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius underlined that the vote is non-binding, but he said that France would recognize an independent Palestine if diplomatic efforts fail. “If this final effort to reach a negotiated solution fails, then France will have to do what it takes by recognizing without delay the Palestinian state," he said.

The fact that the pro-statehood vote in France won by a much smaller percentage than elsewhere in Europe also owes to politics. While most of the French push to recognize Palestine has originated on the left, as is generally the case in Europe, it found much less support on the right. Various members of the right-wing UMP criticized the bill as meaningless for being non-binding. And newly reelected UMP leader Nicolas Sarkozy said the vote's timing was poor, coming so soon after November's deadly synagogue attack in Jerusalem, and advised his party to vote against.

Further, some have accused the government of Socialist President François Hollande of taking an opportunity to woo Muslims in France. Many French Muslims were not only angered by the suppression of anti-Israel protests this summer, but have fled to other political parties because of the Socialist government’s support for gay marriage.

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But no matter what, the outcome today adds clear weight to a growing movement in France that could spell trouble for Mr. Netanyahu.