PARIS – President Jacques Chirac (search) said Monday that the Israeli leader would not be welcome here until he gave a satisfactory explanation for saying Jews should go to Israel to escape anti-Semitism in France.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's (search) remarks Sunday produced a storm of rebuke after he said French Jews were under threat by the nation's much larger Muslim community and should leave.
Sharon was considering a trip to Paris, but no date had been set.
"A visit by the Israeli prime minister to Paris ... won't be looked at closely until the requested explanation is provided," a presidential source said on condition of anonymity.
The sharp response by Chirac, the head of the French National Assembly (search) and others caused Sharon to step back, with Israeli officials claiming the remarks were taken out of context. The Israeli officials also praised steps France has taken to stop a surge in violence against Jews.
Sharon's remarks -- in which he said France was host to "the wildest anti-Semitism" -- were misunderstood, said Jacques Revah, the charge d'affaires of the Israeli Embassy in Paris.
He said Sharon's comments to American Jewish leaders on Sunday in Jerusalem were only a way of telling Jews they belong in Israel. "Mr. Sharon had the same message for all Jews in the world, and if he pointed out France, it was to praise the position and the measures France has taken to combat anti-Semitism," Revah said.
Since the birth of the Jewish state, Israel has encouraged Jews to immigrate there to reclaim their ancestral land. But in the case of France, there is an especially complex interplay of politics and history.
Many Israelis speak French, admire France's culture, and recall the days when it was a close ally; France today, however, is widely seen in Israel as biased in favor of the Palestinians; and the French Jewish community -- at 600,000 the third-largest in the world -- tends to be strongly pro-Israel, creating friction with a Muslim population of almost 5 million.
France has a history of emblematic instances of anti-Semitism -- such as the 19th-century trial of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish army captain framed by anti-Semitic conspirators -- and of liberalism: French author Emile Zola's denunciation of that trial, entited "J'accuse," ("I accuse") stands as a watershed attack on anti-Semitism.
On Monday, Sharon's words were widely deemed scandalous and provoked widespread irritation within the prickly French political class.
The Foreign Ministry quickly issued a terse statement calling his remarks "unacceptable" and demanding an explanation. Jean-Louis Debre, president of France's lower house of parliament, went further, telling Europe-1 radio that the words are "inadmissible, unacceptable and, furthermore, irresponsible."
Even French Jewish leaders said Sharon's remarks did nothing to help the situation.
"These comments do not bring calm, peace and serenity that we all need," said Patrick Gaubert, president of the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, told France-2 television.
In the past, Israel has castigated the French for not doing more to stem an upsurge in anti-Semitic acts blamed on young French Muslims using the Middle East conflict to justify their violence. The latest French Interior Ministry figures show 510 anti-Jewish acts or threats in the first six months of 2004 -- compared to 593 for all of last year.
In response, France has beefed up security at Jewish institutions and enacted tougher punishments against anyone convicted of a crime motivated by anti-Jewish hate. But in a nation where French police files are burgeoning with reports of such crime, a sense of uneasiness and betrayal has some Jews questioning where they belong.
"Maybe I would move, I don't know," said Claude Chiche, a public school teacher in Paris. "It shocks me when I go to a synagogue to see the police officers there with guns. It's a hard thing to explain to my children."
According to Israel's Ministry of Immigration and Absorption, 7,024 immigrants have come from France since 2000 -- from a low of 1,160 in 2001 to a high of 2,385 in 2002. For the first half of 2004, 647 French Jews immigrated.
Many Jews here think of themselves as French first and foremost.
"The French government has done a lot for us," said Nessim Barchichat of Paris. "The Jews in France have their space, they are very important here, they have their business, they are part of the country's economy and despite the attachment to Israel, they refuse to leave."
While French Jews were granted equal rights in the 18th century, they have also been subjected to severe persecution -- particularly during the dark hours of World War II, when 75,000 Jews were rounded up from France and sent to Nazi concentration camps. Almost all died.
The French government failed to recognize its role in the Nazi extermination program until 1995, when Chirac became the first French president to publicly acknowledge and apologize for France's role in the Holocaust.
France's relations with Israel have been no less problematic.
France provided critical military help to Israel in the first years following independence in 1948, a relationship that hit a high point in cooperation when Israel fought with France and Britain to capture the Suez Canal after Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized it in 1956. France was then also a major supplies or arms to Israel.
But relations went downhill with the election of French President Charles de Gaulle, who was anxious to establish closer ties with the Arab world.