French protests greet Israeli president

Several hundred people have protested in Paris against Israel's barrier across the West Bank, in a demonstration to mark the start of a state visit to France by Israeli President Moshe Katzav.

    Katzav's visit is the first by an Israeli head of state since 1998

    The protest late on Monday was supported by more than a dozen political parties and associations, including the Greens, the Human Rights' League, the Movement against Racism and for Friendship Between Peoples, the France-Palestine Solidarity movement and the Coordination for Appeals for a Just Peace in the Middle East. 

    Protesters unfurled banners demanding: "Stop Israeli state terrorism" and "Soldiers, settlers, go home". 

    "State of Israel, criminal state. We want sanctions", "Down with the wall, down with the occupation" and "Down with the ghettos", the protesters chanted. 

    Demanding wall destruction

    The organisers said in a statement: "We solemnly demand that the president of the republic and the French government demand the destruction of those portions of the barrier that have already been built and to voice their opposition to a policy of force that mortgages all logic of peace in the region."

    The visit by Katzav, the first by an Israeli head of state since 1988, is expected to be dominated by the barrier issue and by the perception in Israel that France is experiencing a surge in anti-Semitism. 

    France president Jacques Chirac has already labelled the barrier illegal, adding his voice to international concerns that the forced separation of Israel from the Palestinian community in the West Bank will worsen the Middle East conflict. 

    Thorny issue

    Palestinians say the wall is a land
    grab and a form of apartheid

    Israel insists the wall is designed to keep out Palestinian
    "suicide bombers", but Palestinians argue it is a land grab and a form of apartheid. Israel has said it will boycott an International Court of Justice hearing into the matter that starts 23 February in The Hague. 

    While the barrier issue will likely prove a thorny issue during Katzav's visit, both Israel and France were making efforts to smooth over the often acrimonious argument on whether anti-Semitic attacks were on the rise in France. 

    "The French government is the only government in Europe to
    really fight against - effectively, I hope - this phenomenon," the Israeli ambassador to Paris, Nissim Zvili, told Europe 1 radio. 

    That position marked a change from comments from other Israeli officials who have contended that anti-Semitic incidents in France doubled last year, despite official French figures showing the opposite. 


    "I am told that in the streets of Tel Aviv, in newspaper cartoons and in conversations, the image of France as an anti-Semitic country is gradually spreading. These caricatures deeply hurt French people."

    Jacques Chirac,
    French president

    For his part, Chirac told the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Aharonoth last week France would crack down on any form of anti-Semitism, and that its reputation in Israel was unfounded. 

    "I am told that in the streets of Tel Aviv, in newspaper cartoons and in conversations, the image of France as an anti-Semitic country is gradually spreading. These caricatures deeply hurt French people," he said. 

    In a symbolic sign of friendship, officials have lined Paris's
    Champs-Elysees avenue with Israeli and French flags. 

    Katzav, who arrived shortly before midday aboard an El Al jet,
    was greeted at the airport by French Foreign Trade Minister Francois Loos and the main Paris rabbi David Messas, as French and Israeli national anthems were played. 

    Heavy security has been deployed for his visit, which will see
    him meet Chirac later on Monday, then Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin on Tuesday. 

    Bilateral relations

    The Israeli president, who has a largely ceremonial position,
    will also see parliamentary leaders and the French finance and
    interior ministers, while his entourage of Israeli corporate chiefs will explore business opportunities. 

    Zvili said Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon might follow up
    Katzav's visit to France with one of his own "towards April". 

    Chirac's spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, said: "Up to now, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its repercussions have cast a shadow over bilateral relations between France and Israel. This state visit will mark a change in the relations between the two countries." 



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