French President Jacques Chirac said through his spokeswoman Monday that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon would not be welcome to visit France until he gave a satisfactory explanation for saying Sunday that French Jews should emigrate to Israel "as early as possible."
Chirac's statement was an escalation of outrage across the French political spectrum over the remarks by Sharon, who also called France the home of "the wildest anti-Semitism."
"A visit by the Israeli prime minister to Paris, for which no date has been set, will be examined only when the requested explanation has been provided," said a spokeswoman at the presidential palace in Paris. The spokeswoman made the statement on condition of anonymity.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman, Herve Ladsous, on Sunday demanded an explanation from Israel about what he termed Sharon's "unacceptable statements."
In Israel, officials tried on Monday to play down Sharon's comments. A government spokesman, Avi Pazner, said that Sharon "was misunderstood" and that his remarks were taken out of context.
The Israeli interior minister, Avraham Poraz, told the Reuters news agency that the French were "overreacting." He said Israel was "a Zionist state. And we always advocate Jews to migrate to Israel. So nothing new about that."
France has the largest Jewish population in Europe, about 600,000, and the largest Muslim population, more than 5 million.
Its relations with Israel are often tense; many Israelis feel that France, among other major European countries, is biased against them in the conflict with the Palestinians.
Sharon was speaking to an American Jewish group Sunday in Jerusalem when he apparently departed from prepared remarks and referred to a spate of anti-Semitic incidents in France in the last several years. They include vandalism at synagogues, Jewish schools and cemeteries, and attacks on a Jewish soccer team and Jewish children riding a school bus.
The incidents appear to have grown worse, and more frequent, since the outbreak of the Palestinian uprising in September 2000. Many analysts say that most of the perpetrators are young Muslim men from France's large North African immigrant community who sympathize with the Palestinians.
"In France today, about 10 percent of the population are Muslims," Sharon said in his speech. "That gets a different kind of anti-Semitism, based on anti-Israeli feelings and propaganda." He also said, "I must say that the French government are taking steps against that."
In the past, Sharon has said that Israel needed more Jews, and identified countries where he said Jews were currently "at risk," including Argentina and France.
In the view of some Israelis, encouraging more Jewish migration is also necessary as a counterweight to higher Arab birthrates; many Israelis fear that Arabs could become the majority population of the land west of the Jordan River within the next decade.
Jean-Louis Debre, a Chirac ally and a leader in the French Parliament, said Sharon's comments "distort reality" and called them "an example of hostility toward our country."
French Jewish leaders also tried to distance themselves from Sharon's comments, and praised the government's response to anti-Semitic incidents. Specifically, Jewish leaders have commended the former interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, now finance minister, for making a top police priority of prosecuting anti-Semitic attacks and sensitizing others in the government to the need to speak out forcefully against the problem.