TCS Daily

Franco-Israeli Detente?

By John Rosenthal - August 12, 2005 12:00 AM

On the face of it, the warm reception reserved for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon during his recent visit to Paris would seem to represent a turning point in Franco-Israeli relations. Despite calls by a coalition of some 50 leftist and self-styled "human rights" groups to protest Sharon's invitation by the French government, the streets of Paris were unusually calm.

A small demonstration on the night of Sharon's arrival attracted, according to police sources, some mere 250 persons. The organizers themselves only claimed 500 - or, in other words, 10 for each of the sponsoring organizations. The latter included many of the same organizations - among them, the French Communist and Green parties - that successfully turned out some hundreds of thousands to protest the Iraq war: a war for which the militants of these organizations, incidentally, generally held Israel or vaguely perceived "Zionist forces" at least partially responsible.

The French media, which in recent years has not hesitated to identify Sharon as a "war criminal" (the publicly-funded Franco-German television channel Arte) or to compare him artistically to a butcher serving up Palestinian flesh (the cartoonist Willem in the pages of the daily Libération), was on its best behavior. Both electronic and print media politely gave the "butcher" and "war criminal" opportunity to elaborate on his policies and his hopes for obtaining peace - and otherwise, as a rule, displayed a stunning indifference to his presence in France and the details of his three-day visit. As jaded - which is to say, knowledgeable - observers of French politics pointed out, a more powerful demonstration of the, so to say, "synergies" between the French government, the principal (often state-owned) media, and the supposedly oppositional "left" (both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary) could hardly have been imagined.

Sharon was received at the Elysée Palace by French President Jacques Chirac. In a prepared statement, Chirac offered his guest a "most cordial welcome" in France. Just one year ago, Sharon urged French Jews to immigrate to Israel in order to escape the spread of what he called a "wild anti-Semitism". In response, the French government promptly declared Sharon persona non grata - at least until such time as he explained his "unacceptable comments". Now Sharon took the opportunity to praise France for what he called its "very firm combat against anti-Semitism". He even went so far as to suggest that France might serve as a "model" for other countries in the matter.

These are no doubt words that Sharon's French hosts were delighted to hear - even if they were not likely surprised by them. Indeed, there is every reason to believe that Sharon's visit served the French side, above all, as a publicity coup that had been meticulously orchestrated to highlight the alleged "success" of French efforts to curb anti-Semitism. Thus, just one day before Sharon's arrival in Paris, the French Ministry of the Interior announced that anti-Semitic incidents in France had fallen by some 48 percent by comparison to the first-half of 2004. The release of this statistic had the presumably desired effect: it was cited in virtually all the reporting on Sharon's visit, including - which is no doubt of greatest importance for the French government - in the English language reports. Both the International Herald Tribune and the BBC took the bait, for instance, and spoke of anti-Semitic incidents in France falling by "half" or "almost half".

But the problem with the statistic is that it represents a highly relative and thus misleading "success". This is so, notably, in light of the fact that the first half of 2004 saw a massive - and in the English-language media, almost entirely unreported - spike of anti-Semitic incidents in France. For the year, the number of such incidents, 972, surpassed the previous peak of 930 in 2002 - and this even though in the second half of 2004, their frequency was already again on the decline. Supposing, then, the reported 48 percent drop is accurate (the official state organism charged with gathering statistics on racism and anti-Semitism does not publish any mid-year report), this merely means that the frequency of anti-Semitic incidents in France has returned to the already alarmingly high level of 2003 (during which some 601 such incidents were recorded).

Moreover, there is nothing to suggest that the recent decline has anything to do with the policies of the French government. For the last five years, since the start of the second Intifada, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in France, although showing an overall rising tendency, has oscillated from year to year. Such oscillations presumably reflect changes in the more general political climate, both in France and in the Middle East, and not any specific measures taken by the government.

Having been solemnly declared free of all suspicion of softness on anti-Semitism by no less of an authority than Ariel Sharon, France can now aspire to play the role of an impartial and "honest" broker in Middle East diplomacy. As the editorialists of the French daily Le Monde observed, this is "good news for the Palestinians". It is less clear what the Israeli side has gained from the Chirac-Sharon rapprochement. If Sharon hoped to convince his French interlocutors to support having Hezbollah placed on the EU list of terrorist organizations, as some reports have suggested, there is no indication that he had any success in this enterprise.

It is notable, moreover, that in his prepared "welcome" statement, while Chirac praised the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, he made a point of placing it within the framework of the so-called "road map" for peace in the Middle East. Sharon, by contrast, insists that the "road map" cannot even begin to be applied until "there is a total stop to terrorism". In his words, the Gaza withdrawal thereby forms part of a "preliminary phase". Chirac's divergence from Sharon on this point represents more than just a nuance. It expresses a continuing indulgence of Palestinian terror on the part of Chirac and the French government - who, of course, can far more easily afford such indulgence than Sharon and the Israelis.

John Rosenthal's writings on international politics have appeared in English, French, and German in such publications as Policy Review, the Opinion Journal, Les Temps Modernes and Merkur. More of his writings are available on the Transatlantic Intelligencer ( blog.


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