PARIS (Reuters) - France’s foreign minister sought to calm a row with Israel on Friday, saying Paris opposed any boycott of the Jewish state, but stressed telecom firm Orange, which plans to end its license deal there, was free to define its own policy.
“While it is up to the president of the Orange group to define the commercial strategy of its company, France is firmly opposed to any boycott of Israel,” Laurent Fabius said in a statement.
“Moreover, the position of France and the European Union on settlements is consistent and widely known,” he added of the view that Israeli settlements in occupied territory are illegal.
Israel protested to France on Thursday after the head of partly state-owned Orange said it intended to end its brand licensing deal with an Israeli firm, drawing accusations it was bending to pressure from a pro-Palestinian boycott movement.
Commenting on remarks in Cairo on Wednesday by Orange CEO Stephane Richard, the French company said in Paris that terminating the arrangement with Israel’s Partner Communications was a business decision, not a political one.
Richard said he was willing to withdraw the Orange brand from Israel “tomorrow morning” but moving too quickly would expose his company to legal risks and possible financial penalties.
“The company has explained that it is a commercial decision. As there was confusion and a difference of interpretation on the decision, the minister has recalled France’s position,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Romain Nadal told reporters.
“It is in no way linked to a political decision.”
A senior French diplomat said Richard’s comments had been “clumsy.”
France in June 2014 issued a warning to French investors that investments in Israeli settlement areas carried legal risks, a move which raised concerns in Israel.
Israel fears diplomatic and economic isolation because of the stagnation of talks on founding a Palestinian state in territories it occupied in the 1967 war and settlement construction in those areas.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu demanded France “publicly renounce the distressing statement and action” taken by Orange.
French human rights groups have asked the government, which holds a 25 percent stake in the company, to encourage Orange to pull out of its relationship with its local partner.
Israel has said the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, sponsored by pro-Palestinian intellectuals and bloggers, is motivated by anti-Semitism and a desire to paint Israel as illegitimate.
Reporting by Mark John, John Irish and Elizabeth Pineau; editing by Geert De Clercq and Andrew Roche