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Friday, July 13, 2007

France: Hezbullah is not a terror group

Just a week after French President Nicolas Sarcozy met in Paris with the families of the three kidnapped IDF soldiers and declared that Hezbullah is a terror organization, his foreign ministry has decided that they are a "part of Lebanese politics and must not be regarded as a terror organization." Oh.
France is scheduled to host a conference Saturday bringing together representatives of rival Lebanese leaders, including senior Hizbullah representatives, in an effort to address the Lebanon's political deadlock.

The conference, set to continue until Monday, is not expected to achieve any major breakthroughs and has been described more as an icebreaking meeting between foes.

The conference is expected to focus on the political crisis in Lebanon revolving around the issue of an international tribunal into the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri in February 2005.
And here I thought Sarcozy would be different. Silly me.

(Picture: French hunting knife)

Here's a fair analysis of what's behind the French initiative:
As the Sunni-dominated March 14 coalition faltered following the resignation of Shiite cabinet ministers and mass demonstrations by Hezbollah and Aoun's Free Patriotic Movement (FPM) last winter, Chirac's handling of Lebanon's political crisis grew more and more idiosyncratic. In early 2007, as Hariri and the Saudis were sweet-talking the Iranians in hopes of getting Hezbollah to end the Shiite cabinet boycott, Chirac mortified the French foreign policy establishment by stating in an interview that one or two Iranian nuclear bombs would be "not very dangerous" (he quickly retracted) and ordering Foreign Minister Douste-Blazy to fly to Tehran (he backed down after Douste-Blazy all but refused to go). Chirac's own aides complained to The New York Times about his "obsession" with bolstering the March 14 coalition.[1]

Not surprisingly, Sarkozy said during his electoral campaign that French relations with Lebanon should be "deepened and freed from a personal outlook on things."[2] The first clear indication of his plan for deepening ties to Lebanon came in late May with Aoun's arrival in Paris for talks with French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and other senior diplomats. Kouchner proposed that Lebanese political factions be invited to Paris for an informal gathering to resolve differences, an initiative that the ex-general heartily endorsed. Bush administration officials were adamantly opposed to the idea, fearing that it would legitimize the Lebanese opposition's demand for a national unity government. They pushed instead for a March 14-only conference to work out internal differences within the ruling coalition.

The French weren't interested - forging a more balanced relationship with Lebanon's political factions and facilitating the formation of a national unity government was exactly what they were hoping to achieve. After Aoun's return to Lebanon, as fighting raged between the Lebanese army and Sunni Islamist terrorists, French officials abruptly ended the Chirac administration's practice of calling on the Lebanese people to stand behind the "Siniora government" and began urging support for "the authorities" (in sharp contrast to American statements).

Kouchner's choice of Jean-Claude Cousseran, a former ambassador to Syria and ex-chief of the General Directorate of External Security (the French equivalent of the CIA), as his special envoy to Lebanon also spoke volumes about the new direction of French policy. Chirac fired Cousseran in 2002 after press leaks revealed that the GDES was investigating allegations that the French president received illicit campaign contributions from the late Hariri.[3]

On June 8, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry formally announced an initiative to "invite to France representatives of all the Lebanese political forces and civil society to take part in an informal meeting to promote the re-establishment of dialogue between all the communities in Lebanon." Asked by a reporter if he would like US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to participate, the spokesman replied curtly, "we don't wish other countries to take part."[4]

In order to smooth the way for a French-brokered political compromise in Lebanon, Sarkozy has re-opened diplomatic channels to Syria. France was already moving in this direction, as was evident from the visit of European Union (EU) foreign policy chief Javier Solana to Damascus in March (Chirac had previously vetoed official high-level EU contact to the Syrians). The chief of Syrian Military Intelligence (and brother-in-law of President Bashar Assad) Assaf Shawkat is rumored to have made a secret visit to Paris in mid-June,[5] and there are even reports that Sarkozy is willing to visit Damascus if Syria allows his initiative to succeed.[6] In contrast, the Bush administration has never explicitly promised Syria anything in exchange for cooperation in Lebanon.

The greatest resistance to the French initiative has come from smaller factions within the March 14 coalition that would lose clout in a broad-based government. Although Hariri welcomed the invitation to Paris, the American-backed leader of the Lebanese Forces (LF), Samir Geagea, reacted with palpable disdain. [7] American officials have persuaded the French to postpone the conference from late June until at least mid-July. Whether the French will resist mounting US pressure to scrap the project all together remains to be seen.
Sounds like yet another attempt to just be different than the Americans.


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