Sharon seeks to open new chapter with France

25th July 2005, Comments 0 comments

JERUSALEM, July 25 (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will look to open a new chapter in frequently troubled ties with France during a visit to Paris this week, with President Jacques Chirac eager to help advance Middle East peace.

JERUSALEM, July 25 (AFP) - Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will look to open a new chapter in frequently troubled ties with France during a visit to Paris this week, with President Jacques Chirac eager to help advance Middle East peace.

Relations have been blighted by past Israeli claims that Paris is pro-Palestinian and France anti-Semitic, and most recently by French medical care given to the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat before his death.

But Sharon aides were confident Monday that oil was being poured on troubled waters.

In what will be his first meeting with the French president in four years, Sharon's stay in Paris from Tuesday to Friday heralds a better dawn just weeks before Israel is to end its occupation of the Gaza Strip.

One aide was sufficiently upbeat to talk about "fresh air blowing through the Elysee", even going so far as to welcome "a much more active French role in solving the (Israeli-Palestinian) conflict".

"The time has come to turn a new chapter with Paris... We want to strengthen bilateral relations," said the official.

Improvements have been brewing since the March visit by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, when the then French prime minister called for both countries to "breathe new life" into their relationship.

It is a far cry from a July 2004 nadir when Sharon encouraged French Jews to flee "the wildest anti-Semitism". An icy Chirac said the Israeli premier was not welcome in France until Paris received an explanation.

Faced with a ban and speculation that he was merely trying to sideline a country often seen as sympathetic to the Palestinians, Sharon has since hailed Chirac's efforts to combat anti-Semitism as an example to others.

Tensions lingered on until later in the year when Israel criticised the French welcome and send-off laid on for Arafat who was rushed to a top Paris hospital for treatment before his death last November.

"France is no longer seen as the most hostile European country to Israel," said political analyst Akiva Eldar.

Instead he said such dubious honour has passed to Ireland, which officials saw as unduly critical during its rotating EU presidency last year.

In France, Chirac used an interview last week with Israel's leading liberal newspaper, Haaretz, to hail Sharon's "courageous" decision to disengage from the Gaza Strip and France's "strong relationship" with the Jewish state.

"In welcoming the prime minister to Paris, France sends a message of confidence to its friend, the conviction that peace is possible and the willingness to contribute," Chirac was quoted as saying.

Israel also welcomed the French- and US-sponsored UN Security Council resolution 1559 that called for the departure of all foreign troops, namely Syrian, and the disarming of militias groups, namely Hezbollah, in neighbouring Lebanon.

The Jewish state has also been publicly appreciative of an unequivocal denunciation by the French government of anti-Semitism in France.

A senior official at the Israeli foreign ministry said this week's visit would coincide with the publication of a French report detailing a dramatic drop in instances of anti-Semitism.

"Sharon is very sensitive about needing to recognise and thank Chirac's accomplishments on this matter," said the source close to Sharon.

Meanwhile the French interior ministry said that attacks and insults directed at Jewish targets in France fell by nearly 50 percent over the last year.

In the six months to June, 290 anti-Semitic acts were recorded in France compared with 561 in the same period in 2004 -- for a drop of 48.31 percent, the ministry said.

However three youths were arrested after bottles of acid were thrown against the wall of a Jewish school in Paris on Saturday, police said.

"There is no such thing as an anti-Semitic or racist act of minor importance. Whether it is a word or a gesture, whether or not there are victims, it is always serious," Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said on a visit to the scene Monday.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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