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(photo credit: AP [file])
French attitudes over the Middle East conflict have swung dramatically over the past four years, with the public equally dividing its sympathies between the Palestinians and Israel, a turnaround from four years ago, according to a Pew research survey released Tuesday.
France has long been widely perceived as a special ally in the West to the Arab world, the fruit of its historical roots in the region. A survey four years ago appeared to bear up that assumption, denied by French officialdom. At the time, French respondents to the survey sympathized with the Palestinians over Israel at a roughly two-to-one ratio, 36 percent sympathizing with the Palestinians compared to 19 percent placing their sympathies with Israel.
Today, however, sympathies have undergone a swing in France, home to western Europe's largest Jewish and Arab populations, the latest Pew Global Attitudes survey suggests.
It showed sympathies in France to be equally divided among the public, with 38 percent placing their sympathies with the Palestinians and the same number placing their sympathies with Israel.
Nine percent of those surveyed said their hearts were with both sides, while 12% opted for neither side and four percent said they did not know how they felt on the subject.
"I've always said that the sympathy quotient toward Israel was always much stronger than we imagined, notably in the (French) provinces and outside the intellectual milieu," said Jean-Yves Camus, of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations.
He suggested that two events, the November 2004 death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the illness of former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, might be contributing factors in the change of heart.
The French media and the elite, which tend to set the tone, put a more positive light on Sharon once he suffered an incapacitating stroke in January, Camus said.
With Arafat's death, "lots of opinion-makers, journalists realized" his role in the deadlock of peace negotiations and in the Palestinian Authority's internal problems, Camus said.
The change in attitudes as suggested by the Pew survey apparently does not reflect the troubling issues of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents in France, even though experts here have often said that they rise and fall in unison with the tensions in the Middle East.
Such incidents were at a high two years ago and have since leveled off, although Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said last month that anti-Semitic attacks were on the increase at the end of 2005 and beginning of this year.