Orange is under pressure to terminate its partnership with Partner Communications, an Israeli telecom that licenses the Orange name in Israel.
On Wednesday Richard said that he would gladly end the contract “tomorrow” if he could but that the company faces a financial risk if it pulls out ahead of its contractual end in 2025.
“The fact that he has stated and recognised that this relationship must end is a success,” said Marion Cadier, of the International Federation of Human Rights (Fidh) which welcomed Richard’s statement. “But what we want to see is concrete measures. And we would have liked him to say that [the partnership] is problematic in light of the violations of international law involved.”
She talks of “success” because the Fidh and five other rights groups and trade unions published a report in May accusing Orange, through its business relationship with Partner Communications, of indirectly supporting Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which France and the European Union consider as problematic occupied territory.
“Partner is building infrastructure on confiscated Palestinian lands and is also clearly offering services to settlers, including in some cases to the Israeli army,” Cadier told RFI.
“What we’re saying is that through this business relationship with Partner, Orange is indirectly contributing to the maintenance and reinforcement of Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. What we want to see is for steps to be taken now to renegotiate this contract and, if it’s not possible, to end it.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Richard’s comments “miserable”.
The French Jewish council (Crif) warned that the company’s decision could be interpreted as a boycott, which it says is “contrary to French law” and “contrary to the policy of the French government”.
Activists have mounted a campaign known as BDS - boycott, divestment and sanctions - modelled on the movement that helped undermine Apartheid in South Africa.
Fabius on Friday reiterated that “France is firmly opposed to a boycott of Israel” but added that France and the EU "have a consistent policy on settlement-building that is known to all".
Maryse Artiguelong, of the LDH, the French Human rights league, who worked with the Fidh on the report, says Fabius’s comments are not helpful.
“We are not asking for a boycott of Orange,” she told RFI. In fact, she has an email address with orange.fr.
“We are not in favour of a boycott of Israel,” she added. “We are in favour of a boycott of products from the settlements and the divestment from companies that do business with the settlements or with Israeli companies set up in the settlements.”
The LDH and other French rights groups are careful to distance themselves from the BDS movement because France has prosecuted BDS activists under hate speech laws.
“It is partly for that that we are not in the BDS movement,” explains Artiguelong, though she says the movement has likely influenced Orange’s decision.
“Stéphane Richard, by making this declaration in Egypt, is not sending an innocent message,” she said, pointing to Orange’s ambitions to expand in Africa and the Middle East.
“There is already the beginning of a boycott against Mobinil in Egypt, of which Orange is a shareholder,” sArtiguelong explained. “We are not at the origin of this boycott. But I believe it must have incited Mr Richard to make this declaration in Egypt.”
On Saturday Richard said the decision is purely based on brand strategy and that he regrets it has become political.
But it is political and Artiguelong believes it is now up to the French state, as a 25 per cent shareholder in the company, to do something.
“The simplest solution is the recognition of the Palestinian state,” she said. Barring that, she says France must now negotiate with Israeli leaders to help Orange meet its human rights obligations.