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Francois Hollande

French President Francoise Hollande and the chief executive of mobile phone giant Orange have sought to pour water on a diplomatic incident, after news that the company was boycotting Israel.

Chief executive Stéphane Richard this week accepted an invitation from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to explain his decision to withdraw from the country, after the telecoms boss said he would pull the plug on its Israeli operations.

Richard later appeared to backtrack, saying his comments in Cairo had been misunderstood, and that the decision to withdraw from the country was strategic, not political, before saying Orange “loves Israel” and that it has no intention of leaving.

Hollande reiterated the point in a phone-call to Netanyahu, stressing that France did not support boycotts of Israel, despite many in France interpreting the company’s position as such.

An angry Netanyahu was unimpressed, saying it was part of “an orchestrated global campaign to delegitimise Israel”. On Richard’s apparent U-turn, he added: “His subsequent words of admiration for Israel clearly don’t square with the unequivocally hostile remarks he made in Cairo.”

The prime minister gave no room for quiet apologies, instead instructing his ambassador in Paris to tell Richard that he was “welcome to come and give his explanations in Israel”.

An Orange spokesman later confirmed that he would, saying: “Richard will go to the Jewish state to provide clarifications of the misunderstandings that have arisen recently, to straighten things out and to reaffirm the company’s commitment.”

Some analysts have suggested that the incident was blown out of all proportion and that it should be seen in the context of a French proposal to kick-start Middle East peace talks, which has upset Jerusalem.

Paris is proposing a UN resolution to define an 18-month framework for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and is set to present a draft to the UN Security Council at the end of this month, to coincide with the deadline for negotiations with Iran.