Sharon thanks Chirac, calls him a 'great leader'

27th July 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, July 27 (AFP) - France and Israel marked their new-found friendship Wednesday as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saluted President Jacques Chirac as a "great leader" and thanked him for his combat against anti-Semitism.

PARIS, July 27 (AFP) - France and Israel marked their new-found friendship Wednesday as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon saluted President Jacques Chirac as a "great leader" and thanked him for his combat against anti-Semitism.

Speaking before a working lunch at the Elysee palace, Sharon - who is on a three-day stay in France -- said he was "absolutely convinced that this visit will lead to an added reinforcement to relations between France and Israel."

"I would like to thank the French president for his firm struggle against anti-Semitism," he said. "Israel considers Jacques Chirac as one of the world's great leaders."

Sharon's remarks confirmed the widely-reported reconciliation between the two countries, after several years of mutual recriminations over French policy in the Middle East and a surge in attacks on the country's 600,000-strong Jewish minority.

"The least one can say is that relations were very chilly indeed. And that that is now all over," an aide to the Israeli leader told AFP in an off-the-record briefing.

"Israel and France want to use the opportunity to improve their bilateral relations in every field including military and strategic. Issues on which we share the same view have never been so numerous," the aide said.

"Israel is even in favour of a more significant role for France in settling the conflict with the Palestinians," he said.

Commentators said that major changes in the Middle East have convinced both countries that they share an interest in healing a rift that has soured relations for at least the last four years.

These include the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, the election of his successor Mahmoud Abbas, the assertion of Lebanese independence and the withdrawal of Syrian troops -- and above all Israel's planned pull-out from Gaza in three weeks.

After viewing Sharon for many years as an archetypal hardliner, the French authorities have revised their view of the 77-year-old prime minister and now see him as a man capable of tough decisions for peace, commentators said.

"Ariel Sharon's determination and his personal investment in a risky political endeavour have superseded the less than flattering image of the man that prevailed in Parisian circles," said the conservative daily Le Figaro in an editorial.

Chirac, 72, was expected to praise Sharon for his initiative, but also to urge the Israeli leader to look beyond the Gaza pull-out to more confidence-building measures that can help relaunch the peace process with the Palestinians.

Sharon was later to see Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, and on Thursday he has talks with French Jewish leaders before flying home on Friday.

Franco-Israeli relations hit a low-point a year ago when Sharon said the climate of French anti-Semitism was so bad that all Jews there should emigrate "immediately" to Israel. Chirac's office retorted that the Israeli leader would be unwelcome in France until his remarks were clarified.

Since then Israeli politicians have regularly praised France's tough line in combating anti-Semitism, most of which is blamed on members of the country's five-million-strong Arab minority.

On Monday the French interior ministry released figures showing that the number of attacks and insults directed at Jewish targets had fallen dramatically over the last year -- 290 in the six months to June compared with 561 in the same period in 2004.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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