In Show of Love for Israel, Sarkozy Makes Peres His First Official Visitor

In the 16th century, French Protestant King Henry IV said, "Paris is well worth a Mass" (that is, conversion). The ruler today in the capital believes the warming of relations with Israel is well worth irate drivers' nervous breakdowns.

That statement was written in these pages in February 2004, during the visit of president Moshe Katsav to Paris, the last official visit of an Israeli president in France, and the first since 1988. Then-president Jacques Chirac received his Israeli counterpart warmly, stopping traffic for him in the heart of the city. Chirac seemed to want to play the part of Jacques I, the leader of a monarchy seeking - precisely at the end of its road - the goodwill of the Jewish state.

At the height of the municipal election campaigns in France, Nicolas Sarkozy wants to show that what seemed then a surrealistic, self-serving episode is just the tip of the iceberg. More precisely, it is the tip of the ray of sunlight warming French-Israel relations since the Chirac period, particularly since Sarkozy came to power last May.

Anyone planning a trip to Paris soon might want to reconsider. Not because of anti-Semitism, but rather because of the outpouring of love for Israel. The new president-monarch has decided that President Shimon Peres' visit is to be the first by a foreign leader to the City of Lights since Sarkozy came to power. Sarkozy, who declares his friendship for Israel at every opportunity, has already prepared his gleaming horsemen; Israeli flags festoon the Champs-Elysees.

To France, Peres is a figure that represents Israel's history and the golden age of relations between the two countries. He conveys his love for France and that country intends to reciprocate with a warm embrace.

Peres' visit will be full of impressive ceremonies. Nonetheless, the president met with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday to coordinate with him, among other things, the diplomatic and security issues to be discussed. Among them:

Bilateral relations: As early as 2002, France resolved to cut the interdependence between these relations and progress in the peace process. Since then, relations warmed significantly, as could be seen during the visit of Ariel Sharon to Paris in June 2005. Cooperation became closer with the desire to embrace Sharon during disengagement, to ensure the success of the Gaza pullout.

It was during Sharon's visit that the parties announced the establishment of a French-Israeli $1.6-billion foundation to promote joint projects. In June 2007, France established its new cultural center in Tel Aviv, at the expense of an identical institution planned for Shanghai. In September 2007, a French high school was inaugurated at Mikveh Yisrael agricultural school.

The cooperation comes to the fore at the political, economic, cultural levels and even security and military intelligence. Israeli diplomats in Paris say hardly a week goes by without a request from some government ministry or other to collaborate with its Israeli counterpart.

Anti-Semitism: Sarkozy is very proud of his work against anti-Semitism, which he began as interior minister from 2005 to 2007. Richard Prasquier, the president of CRIF, the umbrella organization of France's Jewish communities, told Haaretz yesterday that efforts to combat anti-Semitism are marked.

"Legislation is very tough and includes heavier penalties in cases of anti-Semitism than in cases of violence without anti-Semitic characteristics," Prasquier said.

He also said 2007 saw a decline of 30 percent in anti-Semitic crimes and threats.

The heads of France's Jewish community are expected to share with Peres their concerns that events in Gaza will change that picture. Peres will seek to reassure them, and will ask the French authorities how they have prepared to deal with the situation.

Diplomacy: Peres will discuss strengthening the coalition against Iran, and will also bring up the backing Tehran has given to Hamas and Hezbollah. He will try to persuade France to change its policy to support the inclusion of Hezbollah in the European list of terror organizations.

Peres will also want to use France's upcoming presidency of the European Union, starting July 1, to leverage Israel's position on the continent, so it can join European financial, educational, environmental and judicial organizations.

Finally, Peres is expected to show support for Sarkozy's vision of a Mediterranean union involving intercultural dialogue and promotion of economic projects.