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PARIS - Who was not present at the festive dinner French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave for President Shimon Peres? Some thought that Sarkozy's wife, Carla Bruni, stole the show when she displayed her "pregnant belly." But Peres, being Peres, did not pass up the opportunity to give a historic perspective to his visit.

In his keynote speech, which he worked on for weeks, Peres cited Rashi, the medieval French Jewish commentator on the Bible who "rescued hundreds of ancient French words from oblivion"; Napoleon, who declared in Jaffa that the time had come for the Jewish people to take its place among the nations; and Chateaubriand, who described the Jews as a tiny nation that had miraculously escaped assimilation and finally been resurrected in its ancient homeland. And also Leon Blum, Andre Malraux, Francois Mitterand and even Jacques Chirac, the first French president to publicly acknowledge France's responsibility for the crimes of the Vichy regime.

Of course, Peres himself was also not absent from the speech. He apologized to his listeners for his frequent use of the word "I," saying it stemmed from the fact that he is one of the few people left who still can tell the "great story" of Israel's birth from personal experience. He described how, a year before the War of Independence, David Ben-Gurion showed him the list of weapons in Israel's possession: "Not a single plane. Not a single piece of artillery that actually fired. Not a single tank that rolled properly."

Then, following the establishment of the state, he recalled the massive flow of Soviet arms to Arab states, Israel's vain appeals for help to the United States and Britain and, finally, the salvation that came from France. "I will never forget my first steps on French soil," Peres said. "It's hard to describe the warmth, the solidarity and the support, a la francaise, that I received in every corner of this land."

But though his speech dwelt at length on the past, he also devoted a few sentences to the present - and, as befits a visionary, a fair amount of time to the future.

Earlier, in a conversation with Haaretz, Peres said the friendship between Israel and France "had no parallel" in human history. He said he did not see his visit as the "closing of a circle," but as a chance to say thank you for the past, and to open a new chapter of cooperation in facing the challenges of the present and future - first and foremost, Iran's nuclear program and terrorism.

Asked whether his comment on the eve of his visit, that Israel would not act alone against the Iranian threat, had been coordinated with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, he replied: "If we act alone, we'll remain alone. [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is the whole world's problem; it should not be reduced to Israel's [problem]. There is no issue here of coordinating statements, but of coordinating policy."

Regarding Sarkozy's plan for a "Mediterranean Union," which has been criticized as a hasty initiative unveiled without first consulting his colleagues in the European Union, Peres said: "The idea that the European Union should serve as a model for the Mediterranean region is daring and interesting. Following 1,000 years of war and bloodshed, an economic merger came along that succeeded in overcoming Europe's political wounds. Sarkozy is a groundbreaking leader. He operates like a whirlwind: He doesn't dally, he leaps. The fact that he is unpopular should not affect his mode of behavior, because if leaders acted according to the polls, they would all have to be conservative and do nothing."

He added that he is convinced Sarkozy will overcome opposition to his plan within the EU.

Despite his courageous display of friendship during your visit, Sarkozy and his Foreign Ministry have not hid their unhappiness over the operation in Gaza and Israel's "destructive settlement policy."

"The events in Gaza and Jerusalem [Palestinian terror attacks] do not grant Israel any breaks on the settlements. But in any case, [Israel's] policy is that no new settlements will be built. Ultimately, the French policy on this matter is based on the principles laid down by the Quartet, which Israel also signed."