One day after CEO of Orange Telecom in France, Stephane Richard, told audiences in Cairo he would sever his company’s ties to Israel “tomorrow” if he could, the company announced it would indeed be ending its agreement with cellular service provider Partner Ltd. The company insists it is a business decision and not a political one.
France Télécom S.A. owns the Orange brand, and licenses Israeli telecom provider Partner to use the name in Israel. Partner has several stores in Judea and Samaria, as well as over one hundred cell towers, according to France 24. Orange France came under immense pressure from several NGOs and unions in May for its relationship with Partner, which activists claim supports the “occupation” of Palestinian territories. France has non-binding guidelines which warn citizens against doing business in Judea, Samaria and East Jerusalem.
Officially, the decision from Orange stems from the nature of the relationship with Partner. A statement from the company, quoted by The Times of Israel, said that it doesn’t want to maintain its brand presence “in countries in which it is not, or is no longer, an operator.” Since Partner is not owned by Orange, the French company has no control over the company, nor any say in Partner’s business decisions.
Orange France clarified that it “does not engage in any kind of political debate under any circumstance.”
Richard was quick to toe the party line Thursday, telling French paper Le Monde Thursday that Partner “is a company that uses the name of Orange, but that has nothing to do with the group and is not controlled by us.
“It is not in (our) policy that an operator over which we have no control use our brand,” he said. “This has nothing to do with the political context.”
Yet his statements in Cairo belie this claim. There, he told audiences, “I know that it is a sensitive issue here in Egypt, but not only in Egypt … We want to be one of the trustful partners of all Arab countries.”
He added that profit from the Israeli market was negligible. “The interest for us is certainly not a financial interest. If you take those amounts on one side and on the other side the time that we spend to explain this, to try to find a solution and the consequences that we have to manage here but also in France, believe me it’s a very bad deal,” he said.
Meanwhile, Egyptian company Mobinil, which, like Partner, has a licensing agreement with Orange France, has been the target of a boycott campaign in Egypt over Orange’s ties to Israel. The boycott, spread over social media and spearheaded by Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) activists, called on Orange to end its “embarrassing” contract with Partner. “Until Orange takes the moral step and cancels this shameful contract, the popular Egyptian campaign to boycott Mobinil will continue and intensify,” the group warned in a letter, cited by Ynet. This is likely what drew Richard’s comments in Cairo.
In Israel, Richard’s statements were met with protests. Over 400 Partner employees staged protests in Israel, covering Orange logos with Israeli flags.
“We are an Israeli company that provides service to everyone,” outgoing Partner CEO Haim Romano told the Walla news site. “We are confident that the Israeli public will know how to tell the difference between us and there will be no harm to Orange Israel, which is a separate company.”
Yet despite Romano’s confidence, at least one company has voted with its feet. The Times of Israel noted that synthetic grass company Pashut Yarok cancelled its 34 Orange lines, and committed to avoiding Orange-affiliated carriers abroad, as well.
In a statement cited by the paper, the company wrote, “The fight against boycotts should be shared by all citizens of Israel, regardless of political views, and we feel a duty and a right to take part in it. We hope that Partner finds a quick way to break away from Orange, which has become a burden, and possibly sue [the company] for damages caused.”