Sharon is a punk, says ambassador

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The new French ambassador to Israel was involved in a diplomatic row yesterday after a report that he had called Israel a "paranoid country" and its Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, "a punk".

Silvan Shalom,Israel's Foreign Minister, ordered its embassy in Paris to seek official "clarification" of the report in Yedioth Ahronoth.

The newspaper's Paris correspondent, Boaz Bismout, said that Gerard Araud, who is yet to take up his post in Tel Aviv, made the remarks last week in a private conversation at a cocktail party for senior French diplomats given by Dominique de Villepin, the Foreign Minister. The report said M. Araud had "repeatedly" used the word "voyou" of Mr Sharon and had criticised the controversial fence being built to cut off the Palestinian territories.

The dispute may partly focus on the meaning of voyou - a term sometimes used by parents of misbehaving children. Mr Bismout's report says the French-Hebrew dictionary defines the word as "punk, thug, hooligan, criminal, crook".

An Israeli Foreign Ministry official said that if the remarks had been said as reported they were "severe". But he said the ministry was not going to rush to judgement before it had an official response from Paris.