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PARIS - The first lady of France, Bernadette Chirac, walks past the Israeli journalist sitting in one of the anterooms in the Elysee Palace. She glances at him briefly and continues on her way down the corridor, holding a suit on a hanger. She gives the suit to one of the household staff and instructs him to send it to "the usual cleaner:" "Tell him to pay attention to the stains on the trousers. He has perspired a lot recently."

A few minutes later, President Jacques Chirac's spokesman will inform the reporter that "the president has worked very hard to prepare for this interview. He has invested a great deal of thought in it." And indeed, it is evident that relations with Israel concern Chirac greatly these days; he wishes to transmit "a message of true friendship" to the Israelis, one that is even extraordinary. Less than an hour before his meeting at the Elysee with Angela Merkel - who is shaping up as the next chancellor of Germany - he clears his agenda in order to express in an exclusive interview with Haaretz his "profound admiration and the friendship he feels toward the State of Israel and the Israeli people - a great people of tradition and culture, which is looking to the future. In welcoming Prime Minister Sharon to Paris, France is sending its friend, Israel, a message of trust; a profound belief that peace is possible, a desire to contribute to the peace, an aspiration to be Israel's top-ranked partner politically, economically, and culturally, in keeping with the depth of the ties uniting our peoples and in accordance with the lofty mission assigned to both peoples because of their common heritage."

Sharon will arrive in Paris on Wednesday for an official visit - the first since 2001 - and it appears that Chirac's extraordinary remarks were aimed at paving the way to a smooth and successful visit.

Chirac and Sharon. Ostensibly, two men who disagree. Two parallel lines, the fact of whose meeting does not sound logical. As the French president's embraces with the late Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat grew stronger, Sharon's threshold of loathing for the man Arafat liked to call "Doctor Chirac" grew higher. The Israeli prime minister attacked Chirac's country as "rife with anti-Semitism," and the abyss of loathing grew wider. However, in Paris and Jerusalem there are also those who note the similarity between the two personalities - two historical dinosaurs of the international arena. Two passionate, cunning, bullying politicians (president Georges Pompidou used to call Chirac "the bulldozer"), with long memories that help them maintain old grudges. At the moment, the two need each other.

Dead horse

Morosite, malaise, and even declin - these are key words that commentators are using to define the mood in France today. The failed referendum on the European Constitution, stagnation on the economic and social plane and the failed bid to host the Olympic Games are giving France the appearance of a country without a vision, a worried country that has lost faith in itself and its leaders.

Chirac, 72, has been in politics for 40 years. He spent 10 years as president and has twice been prime minister. His situation has never been so grave. "He is finished," they all say. A lame duck. A dead horse. Two-thirds of the French express a lack of confidence in him, according to public opinion polls. Nearly half of them would like to see him resign now, two years before the end of his second term. As if this were not enough, his heir presumptive, Nicolas Sarkozy, who was brought into the government so he would stop attacking the president from the outside, is now threatening to sink Chirac even before the end of his term. "I do not intend to take apart the locks on the Versailles Palace at a time when a revolution is brewing in France," he declared a week ago with especially ceremonious timing - on Bastille Day. France is in a process of revolution "as a result of paralysis, ignoring reality and a flight from the challenges," he added.

In Africa, France's backyard, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is taking the lead - as was expressed at the recent G-8 summit. The Middle East, too, has been stricken from Chirac's hands: His friends Arafat and Syrian leader Hafez Assad have passed away, Rafik al-Hariri was murdered and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Jordan's King Abdullah and above all Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) are all looking toward Washington and not really taking account of France.

Chirac is in desperate need of some sort of achievement in the international arena. He wants to show a new peak in bilateral relations with Israel, which have been warming during the past two years. At the same time he wants to express firm support for the disengagement and the road map's comprehensive peace plan. For his part, Sharon wants to show that he is not a prisoner in the hands of the Jewish settlers in the territories and that the disengagement is not interfering with his agenda. On the contrary. It burnishes his reputation in the world, and there is nothing like a seal of approval from a traditionally critical country like France to prove this. Sharon will also get points from the Jewish community, which is desperate for a warming of relations between the two countries. Finally, the prime minister will also try to take advantage of the rare moment in order to formulate understandings on the burning Middle East issues - Syria, Lebanon, Hezbollah and the question of Iranian nuclear capacity.

Following the terror attacks in London, will Europe as a whole and France in particular have a better understanding of Israel's struggle with Palestinian terror? Will you, for example, evince more understanding of the policy of targeted assassinations in the territories?

"The Europeans did not wait for the attacks in London in order to enlist firmly and uncompromisingly against terror. Everyday we expand, together and coherently, and in coordination with the other large countries of the world, our abilities to fight terror. We understand [your situation] well, and we have always condemned the acts of terror of which Israelis are the victims. Every act of terror is despicable and it must be deplored."

Is France's position on terror closer today to that of Israel, the United States or Britain?

"Nothing can justify terror. It uses the pretext of great causes as an excuse for the indiscriminate slaughter of innocent people. It is one of the faces of modern barbarism. No country is safe from it. France itself has been the victim of terror and has never underestimated the threat. On the contrary, it is spearheading the struggle against this plague. It identifies with Britain and with the other countries that have been hit, among them, alas, Israel.

"It is incumbent upon us to expand international coordination of the intelligence services, the police and the judicial systems. We are also insisting that the fight against terror be conducted while preserving the principles of the rule of law, democracy and human dignity. Therefore we have insisted that the international conventions define terror and determine a framework for international action against it.

"At the same time, we must deal with all the factors that nourish the hatred and the frustrations: the unresolved conflicts, religious intolerance, the rejection of the other and economic instability. We must prevent the terrorists from exploiting this fertile ground that serves them as a pretext and enables them to prosper."

For the sake of disengagement

No doubt you are following the many difficulties with which Prime Minister Sharon is grappling as the result of his disengagement initiative. Have you changed your mind about him? Do you regret your criticism of him in the past?

"It is not my job to judge the Prime Minister or interfere in Israel's domestic matters. The prime minister has demonstrated a great deal of firmness in the decisions he has taken on the matter of the Gaza Strip. France has only to encourage him on this path, the path of dialogue and a step - so we hope - in the direction of peace."

And what if he does not continue on this path? What if he stops after disengagement?

"Then we shall see. What is important is that the degagement - [Here Chirac is confused for a moment about the term disengagement, which like in Hebrew, in its French translation sounds like a euphemism used to prettify the reality of the withdrawal/evacuation. He immediately corrects himself]; - What is important is that the exit from Gaza goes smoothly.

What role do you intend for France in the peace process? Will you act independently or in the framework of the European Union?

"Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the international community share a common objective: to put an end to the conflict that has been going on now for more than half a century. In order to achieve this aim, we have an instrument accepted by all sides - the road map. It is urgent to implement this document that outlines the necessary stages to achieve peace and the framework for the permanent status agreement: two states living side by side, an Israel assured of its security and a viable Palestinian state.

"The circumstances for this are ripe: Sharon's courageous decision on the disengagement has created positive momentum; and on the other side, Abu Mazen has promised to put an end to the violence. We must not allow this window of opportunity to close. After the withdrawal we will all have to work together to renew the momentum of the road map.

"The EU and France aspire to contribute their share for the sake of this goal and to ensure that the disengagement from Gaza is capped with success. This is being done through our support for the economic development of Gaza, through strengthening Abu Mazen in the face of the extremists and through keeping our commitments in the framework of the quartet, of which the EU is a member.

"In this spirit, we support the ambitious plan to develop Gaza that was presented at the G-8 summit at Gleneagles by the special envoy of the quartet, Mr. James Wolfensohn. France will stand by his side and support his initiatives, as in order for the process to move forward, we must extricate the Palestinians from the hopeless situation they are in and prove to them that their situation is improving and that they have a future."

Could Hamas, in certain circumstances, become an interlocutor?

"Hamas is a terrorist organization that cannot be an interlocutor of the international community as long as it does not renounce violence and does not recognize Israel's right to exist. This is the unambiguous position of the EU and it will not change."

The assessment in Israel is that your invitation to Sharon symbolizes a substantial improvement in the relations between the two countries after years of tension. However, you are no doubt also aware of the despised image of France and the French in Israel. What, in your opinion, should be done to change this image, and what do you intend to do in order to improve France's image in the world, which has been evincing hostility toward it of late?

"France is Israel's friend. It is so for historical reasons, its long and ancient friendship for the Jewish people, its admiration for this people's contribution to world civilization and also the very strong feeling that Israel's existence and legitimacy are indispensable in a world that has known the horror of the Holocaust.

"Beyond the misunderstandings, the reality is one of a strong relationship. The French people is privileged to have the third largest Jewish community in the world after Israel and the United States, and is striving to strengthen these ties. Our cooperation is exemplary in all areas: cultural, scientific and economic. Israel and France also decided in 2002 to increase the cooperation further, which was expressed in the establishment of the `committee of senior officials" that in 2003 proposed a series of steps that will be implemented one by one. We have been successful, as is witnessed - I am convinced - by Sharon's visit to Paris. This visit joins the very successful official visit by President Moshe Katsav in February 2004, and the many meetings between the foreign ministers of the two countries in recent months.

"The reality, then, is one of intensive political dialogue and of constant and consistent improvement in our cultural and economic relations as well - an improvement that reflects friendship and trust and rests upon the strong belief on the part of France and the French that Israel is its great friend."

With respect to France's standing in the world, Chirac said: "I do not feel at all any of the tendencies you are talking about here. Quite recently, the major American public opinion institutes published a very important international study on the image of the countries of the world. France appears there at the top of the list of the countries with the best image."

The Muslims will integrate in the end

Chirac is the first French president to acknowledge France's responsibility for the Vichy war crimes. He is also the one who initiated, in 1997, the Matteoli Commission for the return of property confiscated from Jews during World War II. The determined fight against anti-Semitism being conducted by Chirac and his government has won wall-to-wall praise and admiration, including from the Jewish community and sources in the Israeli Embassy in Paris. These make special mention of the establishment of an inter-ministerial committee on fighting anti-Semitism and the toughest legislation in Europe, setting prison terms for offenders and inciters to anti-Semitism.

According to one assessment, during the course of Sharon's visit, the French government will release a new report on its achievements in this fight - a drastic decrease in anti-Semitic incidents during the past year. Therefore, the surprise here was great when exactly one year ago Sharon declared that "In France, anti-Semitism of the worst sort is developing ... If I have a piece of advice to give to our brethren in France, I would say to them, come to Israel immediately."

Chirac, who was hurt to the bottom of his soul by these remarks, now prefers to hold back and not relate to them directly: "One of the permanent elements in my political activity is the uncompromising fight against the horrors of anti-Semitism, as toward any form of racism and rejection of the other," he says. "This is the background to my decision in 1995 to acknowledge France's responsibility for events connected to the Holocaust. Therefore I have also substantially reinforced the police system and the legal instruments against all forms of anti-Semitism and against incitement to racist hatred. These are deeds that are unworthy of a civilized people.

"To my regret, France, like the rest of the countries in Europe, is dealing with a stubborn and worrying phenomenon of anti-Semitic incidents. France is not anti-Semitic, far from it, but it must fight the actions of violent extremists who are acting out of beastliness. Israel, too, recognizes today that exemplary steps have been taken to stop this plague. The education of the youth, the punishment of the guilty, the close cooperation with our European partners - are at the top of our agenda. In no case will we relax our efforts."

The assessment in Israel is that the Muslim immigrants are not integrating into traditional France, but rather the other way around; that France is becoming "islamicized" at a pace that will change the face of the country within in a short time. Are you concerned about this?

"France has always been a country of immigrants. Our country's secular tradition today allows it to welcome Muslim immigrants just as in the past it welcomed immigrants of all religions. This is a natural process of social, economic and cultural integration, which takes time but is showing signs of success.

"The French model negates any form of sectorialism. That is to say, all candidates for immigration must accept the laws of the republic that define the equality of citizens before the law and negate the possibility that the rights and duties of the individual will not be defined by race, religion or culture. Every individual in France is treated with respect and is entitled to demonstrate his identity and to realize his preferences, within respect for the identity and the preferences of the other. Even if it is clear that the process of integration is long, the vast majority of the immigrants and their descendants are French in every respect, feel French and are partners to the republican ideal. France is proud of them."

Since the elections in Iraq, have you changed your position with respect to that country?

"Whatever France's positions might have been during the war in Iraq, since the vote on United Nations Security Council Resolution 1564 it has been encouraging the establishment of a democratic, legitimate and strong Iraqi regime. Its willingness to contribute to this aim is manifested in its proposal to train the local security forces and help decrease Iraqi debt. France hopes that all the elements of Iraqi society will find their place in the exercise of responsibility and [France] considers essential Iraq's territorial integrity."

The bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor by Israel in 1981 is today perceived as having prevented the development of Saddam Hussein's nuclear plans. What conclusions should be drawn from this with respect to Iran, especially in light of the recent presidential elections there?

"The possibility that Iran will equip itself with nuclear weaponry is unacceptable to France, its partners and the entire world. When the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered that Iran was developing a secret program, we embarked on talks with it - along with the Germans and the British - that were aimed at forbidding any activity of nuclear proliferation. We are in contact with Russia and China concerning this initiative, and the United States is also in the picture.

"We are demanding of Iran concrete guarantees that its nuclear program will be restricted to peaceful and civilian purposes. That is to say: relinquishing all activity of the production of fissionable materials. In return, we are prepared to cooperate with it in the areas of diplomacy and the economy and in the field of energy, and to recognize its right to civilian atomic energy under international control. At the moment, its proliferation activity has been shelved and the negotiations are continuing."

If Iran decides to ignore the international demands, will you support the imposition of sanctions - and should these not prove effective - military action?

"I cannot tell you what the results of our activity will be. I hope that it will succeed and eliminate the danger of proliferation. If this does not prove to be the case, it will of course be necessary to transfer the handling [of the Iranian problem] to the UN Security Council."

And then, is it possible that you would also support military action?

"Please [he sighs] - we are not in any way at that stage. Military attacks are not a solution, whatever the problem. There are civilized means of solving problems and we hope that these will give rise to a positive solution. Otherwise, I stress, it will be necessary to turn to the Security Council."

Together with the United States, you have forced Syria to withdraw its forces from Lebanon. How should President Bashar Assad be dealt with now? Has the time come to compel Hezbollah to cease its armed activities, and if it refuses, to add it to the European list of terrorist organizations?

"At France's initiative, and in coordination with the United States, Britain and Germany, the UN Security Council has passed Resolution 1559, the clear aim of which is to rehabilitate Lebanese sovereignty and democracy. After the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafiq al-Hariri, Syrian forces were withdrawn and free elections were held that have now led to the establishment of a legitimate government that will be able to impose its discipline in the whole of the country and lead to the disarming of the militias, with the full application of Resolution 1559. The Lebanese must create the framework and the process that will lead to this disarmament.

"As for Syria, it is an important country in the Middle East, and constitutes one of the keys to stability in the region. This country, with which France has historical ties, must develop and take the changed environment into consideration."

Looking back, has your pro-Arab policy paid off for French and European interests?

During most of the interview Chirac spoke quietly and slowly, stressing every syllable. He radiates serenity and if he is bothered by his personal situation, he hides this well. This was the first time that it seemed a question irritated him. It interferes with the thesis of nearly idyllic relations that he is trying to depict.

"Sir, there is no such thing here as a pro-Arab policy at Israel's expense," he bridles. "We have always had a policy that was friendly at one and the same time both to Israel and to the Arab countries. One has never come at the expense of the other."

In the perspective of history, how would you like to be remembered?

"As a person who contributed his part to the defense of human rights, to peace and to the fight against economic and political injustice in the word."

Will Sharon save Chirac?

The Elysee Palace, which has served all the presidents of France since the Third Republic, was originally built for Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of King Louis XV. Toward the end of his reign, it also served Napoleon, who abdicated here after the Battle of Waterloo. In light of his bleak situation, will Chirac, too, have to resign before his time? Or is it possible that an extreme irony of history will afford him a savior in the person of Ariel Sharon, who will hand him a bit of international prestige and save him from such a denouement?

Sharon's visit will, apparently, be crowned with success because the French have decided in advance to make it "a visit of agreements." "The president does not wish to enter into clashes," sources close to Chirac made clear before the interview with him. And indeed this fact is evident throughout the interview: The leopard indeed has not changed his spots and has not given up his principles; the disagreements have not vanished and have only been swept under the luxurious Elysee carpets. But the aim now is to turn off the megaphones and pull out cordial smiles and embracing declarations of "excellent relations" and "esteem for a great people that has a common heritage and future."

The targeted assassinations, the illegal outposts, the route of the fence, the placing of the peace process in formaldehyde or the question of convening an international summit after the disengagement - all these can wait. The mission now is to ensure the success of the withdrawal and no element or disagreement must be allowed to thwart this historic process.