The visit could also strengthen long-troubled ties between France and Israel, officials said on Tuesday.

Israel blames Palestinian resistance groups for an upsurge in violence that threatens to disrupt a shaky ceasefire and Israel's planned Gaza pullout next month, an official said.

Sharon is expected to get a cordial reception from President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday that would have been unthinkable last year when relations hit a low after the Israeli leader urged French Jews to escape anti-Semitism by emigrating.

"Because of changing circumstances in the Middle East, there is a new atmosphere and willingness by both sides to expand and improve their relationship," a Sharon aide said.

"Both countries want to turn over a new leaf."

It is Sharon's first visit since a 2001 trip marred by differences over Israel's handling of the Palestinian uprising.

The countries have moved closer since the death in a Paris hospital last year of Palestinian president Yasser Arafat.

Arafat's successor Mahmoud Abbas agreed to a truce with Israel in February.

Support

France has stressed its support for Sharon's plan to withdraw from the occupied Gaza Strip from mid-August as a step towards reviving talks on peace and Palestinian statehood.

Sharon last year called on French
Jews to emigrate to Israel

Israel was also pleased with French pressure on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and a ban on broadcasts from a television station run by Lebanon's Hizb Allah group on the grounds they were anti-Semitic.

France is home to the world's third biggest Jewish community after the United States and Israel, but also has close ties to the Arab world and a large Muslim population.

It joined a world outcry at Israel's tough handling of the Palestinian uprising after peace talks failed in 2000.

Paris hopes for a bigger role in diplomacy given that the European Union is part of the quartet behind a peace road map along with the United States, Russia and the United Nations.

Sharon's talks with Chirac will also cover Lebanon, where Israel wants France to step up pressure for the disarmament of anti-Israel resistance group Hizb Allah which has won seats in parliament in recent elections.

Nuclear issues

Israel, believed to be the only nuclear power in the Middle East, also hopes Paris will take a tough line on Iran's nuclear programme to prevent its arch foe making atomic bombs.

Tehran says the programme is only to generate electricity.

Jacques Chirac is expected to
meet Sharon on Wednesday

Sharon will also ask Chirac to use his influence to pressure Abbas "to be uncompromising towards terror groups" responsible for recent attacks despite a truce, an Israeli official said.

Palestinians accuse Israel of violating the truce by its deadly raids on resistance groups.

Israel's push to get French Jews to emigrate is another touchy issue.

Sharon urged French Jews last year to emigrate en masse, saying they faced "the wildest anti-Semitism" in France.

But he later praised French efforts to fight anti-Semitism, saying: "What was done in France should serve as an example for other European countries."