President Jacques Chirac gave Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a warm welcome for a lunch meeting on Wednesday that both sides wanted to go well after ties were strained last year when Sharon urged French Jews to escape anti-Semitism by emigrating.

"It is a pleasure for me to welcome the prime minister of Israel," Chirac told reporters before the lunch at Elysee Palace. "This is the occasion for me to tell him again that France is, and has been for a long time, Israel's friend."

Chirac's welcome would have been unthinkable last year when relations hit a low after Sharon's criticism of anti-Jewish feeling in France. Keen to improve ties, the Israeli leader thanked Chirac for striving to curb anti-Semitism.

Repairing relations

"France is at the side of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people, so... we can assist in a revival of the peace process"

Jacques Chirac,
French president

"I am sure this visit will advance the relations between our countries and certainly will also help advance peace, which we are so interested in having in the Middle East," he added.

France is home to Western Europe's biggest Jewish and Muslim communities, and many anti-Jewish attacks have been blamed on Muslim youths angry at the situation in the Middle East.

France has reported a sharp drop in the number of anti-Semitic acts committed in the first half of this year.

But many in France's 600,000-strong Jewish community remain worried about anti-Jewish attacks, especially in schools. Three teenagers were put under official investigation on Tuesday for throwing bottles of acid into a Jewish school in Paris.

Jewish emigration

Despite praising France's efforts to curb anti-Semitism, Sharon has stood by his call for Jews to emigrate to Israel, including from France. The Jewish Agency for Israel expects more than 3000 people to move to Israel from France this year. 
 

Chirac said he hoped Israel's planned pullout from the Gaza Strip next month would act as a catalyst for Middle East peace.

"On the eve of the disengagement from Gaza ... France is at the side of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people, so that on the occasion of this historic decision, we can assist in a revival of the peace process," he said.

Sharon will seek greater French support at the talks for efforts to disarm Hizb Allah in Lebanon and Palestinian resistance groups.

'Road map' stalled

Hundreds demonstrated in France
against Sharon's visit

But a senior Israeli official travelling with Sharon said persistent violence despite a five-month-old truce barred more progress from being made on a 'road map' to peace backed by Europe, the United States, United Nations and Russia.

Another item on the agenda at Wednesday's meeting was international efforts to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons - an issue made  more urgent after Tehran said earlier on Wednesday that it will resume some key atomic work.

Israel, the only nuclear power in the Middle East, feels Paris could do more to prevent its arch-foe making atomic bombs.

Iran says its nuclear programme is for electricity and vowed to resume some key work on its nuclear fuel cycle regardless of what European diplomats might propose to defuse a dispute over its atomic ambitions.

France is part of a European Union troika, with Germany and Britain, trying to resolve the dispute with Iran.

Protest

Meanwhile, about 200 people protested Sharon's visit in a vigil at La Madeleine Square in Paris on Wednesday evening.

The demonstrators criticised Sharon's treatment of Palestinians and the French president for allowing the Israeli prime minister to visit.

Aljazeera's reporter in Paris Michele al-Kik said the demonstrators were especially upset over Israel's policies during the second Intifada.