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The French ambassador to Israel told The Jerusalem Post on Monday that with the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as his country's next president, "there will be new progress and new steps forward in French-Israeli relations."
This progress, Ambassador Jean-Michel Casa quickly qualified, "would continue the deepening of ties between the two peoples over the past few years" under outgoing President Jacques Chirac, but, he hoped, "would also speed up that process."
But not everyone is as optimistic.
"I cannot believe that there will be perfect alignment between French foreign policy and [Sarkozy's] stances through the years," former ambassador to France Nissim Zvili told the Post.
"Despite the clear positions [in support of Israel] that he expressed as a government minister," Zvili said, "today, he must take into account France's interests in Arab countries, North Africa and the Third World.
"Even though his heart is closer to our positions, this won't translate directly into a French foreign policy that we would like to see."
Nevertheless, Casa's optimism seems to be shared by Israeli leaders. Likud chairman Binyamin Netanyahu called Sarkozy's electoral victory good news for Israeli-French relations on Sunday night, adding, "Sarkozy is a friend of Israel and a personal friend of mine. He wants to help Israel achieve true peace, and he understands our security needs well."
Vice Premier Shimon Peres also cited Sarkozy's friendship and added that his victory speech declaration that a European Union-like treaty would be implemented in the Middle East was a "very interesting" suggestion.
Casa and Zvili spoke to the Post at an inauguration ceremony for Israel's first French-Hebrew bilingual school on the Mikve Yisrael Agricultural School campus between Tel Aviv and Holon, intended by its founders to be a conduit for French-Israeli cultural rapprochement.
"France has a willingness and a desire to develop and support Francophone culture all over the world," Casa said. "In Israel, there is a special dimension to this because of a permanent stream of French Jewish immigrants and French-speaking immigrants into the country. We are neutral toward this aliya, of course, but since it's there, we want to help these immigrants maintain their French culture and language."
Education Minister Yuli Tamir said the bilingual school would also help with the integration of adolescent French olim, providing them a comfortable bridge "from culture to culture, from language to language."
For Zvili, the joint work represented by the new school holds even greater promise for cultural integration. "I hope this project will help bring about the French government's inclusion of Israel in the Francophonie," he said, referring to the Paris-based organization of 55 member states with French linguistic or cultural connections.
"Fifteen percent of Israel's population speaks French," he said, "more than in many other countries that are part of that organization."
The first Jewish agricultural school in the Land of Israel, Mikve Yisrael had a French connection from the start. It was founded in 1870 on land the Turkish authorities gave to the Alliance Israelite Universelle.
The location is rich in history and symbolism, with a focus on teaching French culture and language from its beginning. And it is important in Zionist history.
As Tamir said at the ceremony, "This is where Israel's educational system got its start."
The new school, slated to begin open in September, will teach a French curriculum alongside the Israeli one, and will offer matriculation exams recognized by both countries.
Pupils will study four languages: Hebrew, French, Arabic and English. With an emphasis on European culture, pupils will study diplomacy, manners and rhetoric, and will travel to Paris as part of their studies of French culture.
The key, according to school officials, will be the way in which the two tracks are integrated. Students will study many subjects together, such as English or the sciences. While the Israeli track will emphasize French language and culture, the French track will focus on Jewish studies.
Support for the school will come from Alliance, the Sacta-Rashi Foundation and the Israeli and French governments.
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