â€˜Detente has arrivedâ€™
Sharon received in Paris with red carpet, set to meet with Chirac and announce upgrading of relations between countries
By Ronen Bodoni and Diana Bahur-Nir
PARIS - Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and French President Jacques Chirac are scheduled to meet at 1:30 p.m. (Israel time) and announce an upgrading of relations.
â€œAfter years of bittersweet relations, the time for dÃ©tente has arrived,â€ declared Le Monde in its front-page main caption.
Israel and France are planning to create a fund for the improvement of the image of each country in the otherâ€™s public opinion sphere.
A few hundred protestors demonstrated against Israel â€˜s presence in the West Bank and Gaza, holding signs condemning Sharon. But the protest did not succeed in ruining the positive atmosphere.
A source close to the prime minister said â€œFrance would like to again play an important role in the Middle East, and she has understood that she canâ€™t do this without going through Jerusalem.â€
In a similar spirit, the La Figaro newspaper wrote that â€œFrance understood that it is risking long term isolation if it does not listen to Israel. Israel for its part understands that without a stable relationship with France it wonâ€™t obtain anything â€“ at least not much â€“ in the European Union. Thus, both countries want to focus on what they share.â€
Diplomatic sources told ynet that there is a will on the part of France to turn over a new leaf. Sharon was warmly received in Paris, and his hosts arranged a respectable and impressive welcoming ceremony. A red carpet was rolled under his feet as he disembarked from the plane, and the guard of honor joined in the festive ceremony.
A diplomat in the Elysees Palace said, â€œSince Sharon was voted in, relations between the countries were cold, perhaps frozen. The Israeli media also denunciated what it saw as French policy mistakes.â€
The Le Monde newspaper mentioned a Maariv article from October 2003, which showed a photo of Chirac, under the headline: â€œCollaborator.â€
The text below the photo said that Chirac â€œuncovered the face of French anti-Semitism.â€ The article came after Chirac failed to condemn the comments of the former Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahatir Muhammad, who said that â€œthe Jews control America.â€
Le Monde said the height of tension between the two countries was on July 18, 2004, when Sharon called on Franceâ€™s Jews to immigrate to Israel due to the anti-Semitism raging in France.
Following the call, it was reported that Chirac declared Sharon to be persona non grata, though the report is denied by the Elysees Palace.
â€œSharon never hid his intention to bring as many Jews to Israel as possible and that he saw France as a potential reservoir,â€ Le Monde said.
French diplomats said they believe that if Sharon again calls for Jews to â€œreturn to the land of the forefathers,â€ the call will be low profile, to avoid upsetting his hosts.
The visitâ€™s timing seems to be the product of a number of overlapping interests. France is close to national elections and is keen to show its influence on the Israeli-Palestinian sphere.
What Israel wants
Sharon is, for his part, interested in creating "diplomatic credit" abroad for the disengagement program, by building ties with European leaders.
Sharon and Chirac will spend much of their time discussing the disengagement, as well as what will on the day after the pullout.
The two will also discuss topics such as the disarmament of Hizbullah, the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon, and the Iranian nuclear threat.
Diplomatic sources said that â€œrelations with France have known highs and lows, and thereâ€™s no doubt that the warmth in relations is a very important thing which should now be advanced. The change in Franceâ€™s relation to Israel comes from the disengagement program. They understand that this is the only game in town, and that the route to becoming involved in the area passes through Jerusalem. They also understand that an unbalanced policy has to be changed.â€
In advance of Sharonâ€™s trip to Paris, the prime minister gave a number of interviews to French press agencies in which he explained his call to French Jews to immigrate to Israel following a rise in anti-Semitism, a call that was interpreted by the French as an insult.
Diplomatic souces said that it â€œwas clear that in France there is anti-Semitism, but Chirac is fighting hard against it, and the prime minister intends to thank him for that. The prime minister highlighted many times that he is interested in encouraging French Jews to move to Israel, and at the same time, heâ€™s interested in encouraging all Diaspora communities to do so.â€
Statistics on anti-Semitism
Before Sharonâ€™s arrival in Paris, the French interior ministry published encouraging statistics showing a 48 percent fall in anti-Semitic incidents this year. Some 290 incidents were recorded this year, as opposed to 561 in the previous year.
Around 330 French Jews immigrated to Israel on the same day that the statistics were published, a record number of immigrants in a single day.