Macron tore into Israeli security forces in front of the church when they tried to enter the church with him.
“I don’t like what you did in front of me,” the French president said in English, clearly exasperated, his face irate. “Go out. Outside! I’m sorry, but we know the rules. Nobody has to provoke! Nobody!”
“Please respect the rules,” he said. “They will not change with me.”
According to a spokeswoman for the Élysée Palace, the official seat of the French presidency, Macron was reacting to an apparent “altercation” between Israeli security forces and French security forces when he tried to enter the building.
As the property of the French government, the Church of St. Anne is already managed by France, the Élysée said. “It is the role of France in this city to protect this place,” according to the spokeswoman. “The Israeli security forces wanted to enter it while security was assured by French security forces.”
A spokesman for Israel’s Internal Security Agency (ISA) described the standoff outside the church as a “discussion,” adding that the matter was resolved when an ISA guard and a policeman ultimately accompanied Macron and his delegation inside the church.
The ISA spokesman added that Macron apologized to Israeli security officers after the visit “and shook hands with the security personnel.” The Élysée did not confirm that Macron apologized.
The scene was almost a perfect reenactment of France’s then-President Jacques Chirac’s visit to the same church in October 1996, which similarly ended with a verbal spat — en anglais — between the French president and Israeli security forces.
In a heated exchange that elicited an outpouring of support across the Arab world at the time, Chirac, with a formidable French frostiness, refused to enter the church until all gun-wielding Israeli soldiers exited the building.
“I don’t want people with arms in France,” Chirac said, with a dramatic wave of the hands to signify that he was standing on French territory.
After an Israeli official protested, Chirac — who as a young man briefly worked at an Anheuser-Busch factory in St. Louis — dug in deeper. “No, I’ll wait,” he said.
Minutes later, Israeli soldiers came streaming out of the church, one by one.
On the Via Dolorosa nearby, Chirac, who died last year and who was also the first French president to acknowledge the French government’s complicity in the Holocaust, had likewise squared off against another Israeli security official. “What do you want? Me to go back to my plane and go back to France? Is that what you want?”
“This is not a method,” he said. “This is provocation.”
After the 1996 incident, Chirac then went to meet Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in his first term as Israel’s prime minister, at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. Netanyahu apparently apologized, writing off the incident as a testament to the perfectionism of Israeli security forces a year after the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in November 1995.
On Wednesday, the Élysée spokeswoman said that the incident was “nothing serious” and that Macron’s visit continues as planned. “Everything is going well.”
Ruth Eglash contributed from Jerusalem.