Chirac's French kiss
In the long run, the future of French-Israel relations will be determined by the peace process. But the powerful message that the Chirac administration is trying to pass on to the people of Israel is one that is hard to ignore. While Muslim women in France are being ordered to remove their head scarves, flags emblazoned with the Star of David are being hoisted in the streets of Paris.
If you are planning to visit Paris next week, maybe you should reconsider. Because of the "rising tide of anti-Semitism"? On the contrary. Because of the "I love Israel" parade. Next Monday, President Moshe Katsav will be arriving in Paris for a state visit. His counterpart, Jacques Chirac, intends to greet him with a big bear hug and even halt all the traffic in the busy downtown area.
In the 16th century, the Protestant King Henri IV declared that "Paris is well worth a Mass" (i.e., conversion to Catholicism). The sovereign sitting in the capital today believes that warmer relations with Israel are well worth giving irritable Parisian drivers a nervous breakdown.
Israeli officials who flew to Paris recently to handle the logistics of the visit say that the French carpet has never been redder, and it's been a long while since the smiles of their colleagues have been so broad and their handshakes so firm. Chirac is apparently anxious to play the role of Jacques I, the leader of a monarchy that wants to show its esteem for the Jewish state. The president-king has sent for his royal horsemen, ordered the Israeli flag to be flown on the Champs Elysees and placed his private jet at the guest's disposal. The entire French leadership will take part in this rare display of hugs and smiles.
Katsav will take advantage of these warm sentiments to convey a message in three main spheres:
Bilateral relations - Katsav will emphasize the importance Israel attaches to strengthening ties with France. He will express appreciation for France's efforts to build a new relationship that is no longer a hostage to the ups and downs of the peace process. Chirac will remind us that since the inauguration of the Raffarin government in the spring of 2002, the two countries have launched a whole series of projects and binational accords involving collaboration in science, commerce, education and culture. He will point out that the French still have more to offer. These projects and your visit here today, he will tell Katsav, are proof that whatever the disagreements, France is a true friend of Israel. Chirac will remind him of his country's role in establishing the State of Israel and its commitment to Israel's security. Internally, he will no doubt be asking himself how long it will take for this heating up of the "bilateral relations highway" to gain France some political leverage in the Middle East.
The political process - Katsav will ask Chirac to use his considerable clout with the Arab countries and the Palestinians, and make his political support contingent on the cessation of terror. That is the only way to move forward on the road map you hold so dear, Katsav will say. Chirac may nod in agreement, but he will save the real dialogue on this subject for his talks with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whose upcoming visit to Paris is now being worked out.
Anti-Semitism - Katsav will express concern and warn against allowing legitimate criticism of Israel's policy to slide into views that imply a denial of its right to exist. The president will convey his appreciation for the vigorous action taken by the French authorities to deal with the scourge of anti-Semitism. Chirac will thank him for having faith in France and note that contrary to reports published in Israel, anti-Semitic incidents actually decreased in 2003 by 36 percent, also according to the figures of the Jewish community.
Proportionally speaking, there are fewer anti-Semitic incidents in France than in the United States, Britain and other European countries. But this has not made France any less determined to fight the phenomenon, Chirac will say. A special interministerial committee that was established in November meets every month to discuss the issue from three angles: punishing offenders; promoting education and awareness of the Holocaust; and international cooperation.
Katsav's visit will not spur France into changing its policies on Israel and the Middle East. In the long run, the future of French-Israel relations will be determined by the peace process. But the powerful message that the Chirac administration is trying to pass on to the people of Israel is one that is hard to ignore. While Muslim women in France are being ordered to remove their head scarves, flags emblazoned with the Star of David are being hoisted in the streets of Paris. And symbols, as we all know, have a tendency to penetrate deeply.