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Thursday, July 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Collin Levey / Times editorial columnist
By scolding Israel's Sharon, France wallows in disdain


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France is native soil to many mysterious theories of international relations these days, but on Monday, President Jacques Chirac took the folie to a new level. To prove France rejects anti-Semitism, Chirac announced that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would be unwelcome in the land of liberté, égalité and fraternité.

The contretemps began on Sunday, when Sharon, speaking to visiting American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem, commented on the spreading rash of anti-Semitic incidents in France and encouraged French Jews to return to Israel "immediately." Despite Sharon's praise for France's efforts to calm its roiling tensions, Chirac and his foreign minister, Michel Barnier, took the opportunity to castigate the Jewish leader on the world stage, calling the remarks "unacceptable" and disinviting Sharon from a state visit until he had an "explanation."

We wonder several things here, but first is exactly which part of the remarks they didn't understand. The calling home of Jews to Israel has been around practically longer than Israel itself, and has been a frequent mantra for Sharon long before this week. The object is as much practical and political as spiritual: As Sharon has noted, if demographic trends continue as they are, Jews are on track to become the minority in Israel a few years down the line.

On the merits, Israel's calls for massive exodus probably aren't a viable answer to its problems or to recurrent anti-Semitism. A French cartoon this week reasonably portrayed two Jews asking, "Go back to Israel? Isn't that what the anti-Semites want us to do?" And while Sharon's observation that France's growing Muslim population was the source of increased incidents may be true, it is perhaps not a thought process to naturally recommend the Middle East.

In light of Israel's current battles, using the racial tension in France to draft some new recruits and reinforcements may be opportunistic and misguided. But neither did the remarks, made thousands of miles away, remotely warrant the public scolding that ensued. In a world teeming with outrages, sadness and war, it was a telling moment for the people who invented blasé to suddenly lose their cool.

But then, the latest incident has as much to do with Paris's unrelenting disdain for the United States as with its tension with the Jewish state. In an editorial on the Sharon speech, the leftist French newspaper Le Monde noted that "it's not exactly an accident that Ariel Sharon's remarks ... were made in front of American Jewish organizations." The piece went on to describe such groups as "militant" and to suggest they are the ones who, since Sept. 11, 2001, have "poisoned the climate" of relations between Israel and France.

Is it really a mystery to the French that by recent polls, some 57 percent of Israelis "feel antipathy" toward their country? France, which is home to the third-largest Jewish population in the world, has been lending political aid and comfort to the Palestinians for several decades and quite ostentatiously so in the past handful of years.

On previous visits to Israel, its representatives spent nearly equal time with Palestinian strongman Yasser Arafat in his bunker as with Israeli leaders, even as the terrorism continued. As a member of the United Nations Security Council, France has regularly supported U.N. resolutions condemning Israel. And the state has been supportive of the recent International Court of Justice's strongly worded, if feckless, opinion that Israel's protective fence on the West Bank was creating undue hardships for the Palestinians.

The disproportionate response to Sharon's remarks was the worst kind of political self-service: By casting itself as the injured party, France deflected a broader discussion of how its policies in the Middle East relate to the anti-Semitism within its borders. The country saw 510 anti-Jewish incidents in the first half of 2004, compared with 593 for the entire previous year. Earlier this year, Chirac's efforts to calm religious strife bought the country an atrocious law prohibiting public school children from wearing any religious symbols in class, whether headscarves, crosses or the Star of David.

Following this week's incident, many wire stories hurried to include the anger of French Jewish groups at Sharon's remarks. The president of the French Jewish Student Union said in an interview that he finds it "particularly embarrassing that the Israeli prime minister would use a subject as serious as anti-Semitism to settle his accounts with French diplomacy." Really?

For all the bluster, Chirac still bears some responsibility for the problem Sharon was addressing: Many of the Muslims who have come to France in the past few years undoubtedly consider the nation an ally of sorts in their war against Israel and America. The Arab world is surely grateful and aware of France's role in the international sphere, and in regards to the war in Iraq, its positions are often parroted by Middle Eastern newspapers and cited in support of continuing the fight.

France was once one of Israel's staunchest allies in the years following independence, a position that eroded as Charles de Gaulle began edging the state away from Israel in favor of improved Arab relations — and contracts.

Some have suggested that Sharon's remarks were intended to expose French bias for the Palestinians, thereby taking them out of the role as an honest broker in the Middle East.

But that dynamic was clear to the political classes long ago. The real enlightenment has been the chance to see the French on the world stage, "J'accuse" echoing from the past.

Collin Levey writes Thursdays for editorial pages of The Times. E-mail her at clevey@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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