Not only Carla Bruni visited Israel together with French President Sarkozy, but also 100 keen businesspeople. The message is: Now is the time to do business here

Nicolas Sarkozy (photo: Aleph)

Mixing business with pleasure

PUBLISHED IN |  Jun 29, 08

The state visit to Israel by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni included a delegation of more than 100 French businesspeople, among them chairmen and directors of huge companies. In the wake of a decade during which Israel was perceived as a nuisance in France’s corridors of power, the French business community is now carefully listening to what Sarkozy is saying to Israel and the Jewish people. In observing him and the nine French cabinet ministers who accompanied him to Israel this week, they realized: Now is the time to do business with Israel.

Officials at the French industrialists’ association, the Mouvement des Entreprises de France (MEDEF), which hasn’t sent a group to Israel for more than a decade, say that relative to Israel’s size and the volume of trade between the two countries, the economic delegation was unusually large. Although the delegation did include a few “free-riders” looking for a photo-op, among them friends of Sarkozy and a few French Jews who insisted on accompanying their president, it brought senior representatives of the communications giant France Telecom, car manufacturer Peugeot, energy and transportation company Alstom, satellite manufacturer Arianespace and the French electricity corporation EDF. Judging by the delegation’s makeup, the honeymoon between Israel and France can be measured not just in words but also in euros.

The main headlines of course focused on Sarkozy’s remarks in the Knesset, concerning France’s intention to stand by Israel’s side in the face of the nuclear crisis with Iran. Of course, journalists were also unable to ignore the first lady at Sarkozy’s side, model Carla Bruni, who outshone anything in her vicinity. Yet, it could well be that the more palpable fruit of the French visit will be in the economic realm.

President Shimon Peres invited a few Israeli businesspeople to join the dinner at his residence on Monday, including Checkpoint founder Gil Schwed and Israel Aircraft Industries chairman Yair Shamir. They were seated next to the French president’s military attache. Who knows, said officials at Peres’ bureau. Maybe a deal will come out of this?

That same evening, in Tel Aviv, the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, the Manufacturers Association and the Israel-France Chamber of Commerce organized a reception for the members of the business delegation. While dining on fish and slices of roast beef, poolside at the David Intercontinental Hotel, the entrepreneurs continued to exchange business cards unabated. A manufacturer of swimming-pool cleaning robots, with a heavy accent from the south of France, tried to find Israeli buyers. Locals who have registered patents tried to interest French investors in their latest invention. They were joined by recent French Jewish immigrants to Israel, who represent French companies here, and are constantly en route between Tel Aviv and Paris.

‘A lot to learn’

Shimon Peres (photo: World Economic Forum)

Shimon Peres (photo: World Economic Forum)

Bernard Hagege, the CEO of Atemation, a firm that integrates Israeli technology into military equipment produced in France, took the time to discuss the changed atmosphere.

“The French business community feels as though it has received a green light from the government to do business with Israel,” he said. “It’s hard to put a finger on any specific statement or government decision, but the direction is clear. Before Sarkozy, businesspeople were fearful of the possibility that trade partners in the Arab world would hurt anyone who did business with Israel. But the new French government has made it unambiguously clear: ‘We are behind you, don’t worry.'”

More than that, Hagege said that the French visit was motivated by the government’s desire to learn more about the Israeli success story. “Large delegations that accompany French presidents,” he said, “usually deal with the question of aid, for example in Africa or other countries in the Middle East. When it comes to Israel, it is clear to everyone that France also has a lot to learn and take from here, not only to give.”

According to figures published by the Israel Manufacturers Association on the eve of Sarkozy’s visit, the level of trade between both countries grew by about 16 percent in 2007, reaching $2.7 billion (of which exports to France accounted for $1.2 billion and imports for some $1.5 billion). However, the more astonishing figure concerns the period since Sarkozy took over the reins of government: During the first five months of 2008, imports from France have increased by 37 percent, as compared to the first five months of 2007.

Officials at the Manufacturers Association note that while the shekel’s strengthening has contributed to the increase in imports from France, the trend is clear and evident across all kinds of industries. According to Export Institute figures, Israel’s sales to France increased by 20 percent in 2007, with growth taking place in the high-tech, diamond, chemical, rubber and plastic industries.

Boundless admiration

Shai Agassi (photo: JD Lasica)

Shai Agassi (photo: JD Lasica)

On Tuesday, an economic seminar was held for French and Israeli businesspeople at the David Citadel Hotel in Jerusalem. Its Israeli participants included senior entrepreneurs like Teva chair Eli Hurvitz, real-estate developer Alfred Akirov and Osem managing director Gad Propper. For its part, the French side included Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, Interior Minister Michele Alliot-Marie and a long list of other VIPs. The seminar’s first panel dealt with cooperation in the field of infrastructures, primarily concerning the planned Red Sea-Dead Sea canal. But it was obvious that everyone was eagerly awaiting the arrival of Shimon Peres and Sarkozy, who had just completed a test drive of a new electric car Shai Agassi is promoting.

The two refer to one another as “cher Nicolas” and “cher Shimon.” Though the Israeli president looks like someone who has already seen it all, and his French colleague seems like a student before an exam who’s unable to relax for even a moment, the warm feelings between them are obvious to everyone: Peres called Sarkozy “the president of the future,” and the French president’s boundless admiration for the veteran Israeli statesman was evident from the expression on his face.

No one was surprised by Peres’ successful speech at the hotel. After all, with phrases like “The sun is a not a member of the Arab League” and “A bank is better than a tank,” it’s inevitable that the Israeli president would be a beloved orator in every corner of the world. But it was in fact Sarkozy’s speech, which in many ways sounded more Zionist than Theodor Herzl, that attracted the most attention.

Sarkozy came to office confronted by the work habits of the average French citizen, who spends most of his year preparing for his August vacation, and the moment he returns from that, begins planning the next vacances. This French everyman begins talking about retirement and pension at age 40. By contrast, here in Israel, Sarkozy said, he had encountered a vibrant and dynamic society, which is paralleled only by Silicon Valley when it comes to technological innovations and inventions. The French economy, he said, which has been suffering from recession and low spirits for may years, must learn from Israel. “You, with your backs to the sea, without any natural resources and with an unceasing reality of wars and terror,” the French president said, “you have built a flourishing democracy here that no other nation in the world would have succeeded in building. The time has come for us to begin to cooperate and to understand how you have done this.”

As the official visit came to an end, on Tuesday afternoon, it suddenly became clear that it was not just Carla Bruni who had visited, but also more than 100 keen businesspeople who might very well have an impact on relations between Israel and France.