France seeks to regain lost power in Mideast politics

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PARIS — France, determined to recapture its influence in the Middle East, is positioning itself as a new power broker in the region — much to the dismay of Israel and the United States.

From a strategic standpoint, France, which had a mandate over Lebanon and Syria between the two world wars, wants a share of what it sees as an American monopoly over Mideast affairs.

"France does not want to be confined by the United States, as it has been for the past 10 years, in a secondary role, which has been virtually that of a banker" of the Middle East peace process, Dominique Moisi, director of the French Institute for International Relations, said.

Paris' diplomatic efforts to end 16 days of cross-Lebanese border fighting between Israel and Hezbollah last month and its presence on a steering committee to monitor the ensuing cease-fire have given France a foothold in the region for the first time in many years.

But foreign affairs specialists here are divided on whether France, which has generally aligned itself with Arab countries since the 1967 Six Day War, can contribute significantly to fostering a lasting peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

"I don't know whether there is a role for France to play, but it's absolutely clear that President [Jacques] Chirac wants France to play a role," said Alain Dieckhoff of the Center for International Relations Studies.

It is also clear, he said, "that if France wants to further its interests — not only political but economic — it must be present in the region."

For France, the stakes in the region are far from negligible; they include reconstruction contracts in Lebanon and a complete lifting of U.N. sanctions on Iraq, where French companies are keen to resume their pre-Gulf War activity.

In Iran, too, Paris has substantial interests. Along with the European Union, France has adopted a policy of "critical dialogue" with Iran.

The policy combines trade and diplomatic pressure, which has allowed a gradual rapprochement between the two countries. Paris and Tehran, for instance, recently signed a transportation pact.

Nostalgic for its pre-World War II status as a world power, France harbors resentment — one might even call it envy — toward the United States for its predominant role on the international scene.

Bertrand Gallet, assistant director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, believes that it is time for the United States to make room for another broker because Washington's close ties with the Jewish state disqualify it as an impartial mediator.

"One criticism we can make of the Americans — or perhaps it should be called a handicap — is that they are so unconditionally on the side of the Israelis," Gallet said, expressing a view also voiced recently by members of the European Union.

Israel fears that French involvement may disrupt the balance of power which has enabled the peace process to make rapid advances in recent years.

Noting that the collapse of the Soviet Union "allowed the United States to gain influence in Arab countries where it did not have any influence before," Daniel Sa'ada, spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Paris, questioned whether French involvement would jeopardize the U.S. role in the Middle East and would "call into question the continuing progress of the peace process."

In many ways, Chirac's goals in the Middle East resemble those of former French President Charles de Gaulle, who reasserted his country's influence in the Arab world and, after the Six Day War, imposed an anti-Israeli arms embargo that soured diplomatic ties with Jerusalem for years after.

According to one Israeli official here, Jerusalem's desire to maintain good relations — and avoid a rupture similar to that of 1967 — will rule out any efforts to oppose French involvement.

"If we don't want Mr. Chirac's Arab policy to work against Israel, we must not be excluded from this policy, and Franco-Israeli relations must preserve their quality," the official said.

Israel also wants to avoid any chill that could pose an obstacle to continuing financial aid to the Palestinian Authority from the European Union. France is one of the union's most influential members.

Without the financial support of the European Union, the official said, negotiations with the Palestinians "couldn't have advanced the way they have, and Palestinian autonomy would not be in the shape it is today."

One positive development that could emerge from France's involvement, said the Israeli official, would be France's role in pressuring Lebanon into disarming Hezbollah.

Disarming the Iranian-backed fundamentalist group is one of Israel's preconditions for a withdrawal of its troops from the 9-mile-wide security zone in southern Lebanon.

And the Israeli government hopes to persuade the French to do just that.

One of France's goals in the region is to support Lebanese sovereignty. Chirac made this promise to his close friend Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri during a visit to Lebanon days before the cross-border fighting erupted last month.

France's hopes of bolstering Lebanese sovereignty may seem unrealistic, given Lebanon's weakened state after 15 years of civil war and the presence of some 40,000 Syrian troops there.

But the cease-fire accord did further that cause, because Lebanon was named along with France, the United States, Israel and Syria to serve on the group monitoring the cease-fire.

"For the first time, Lebanon was a participant in its own right," said Dieckhoff, the foreign relations expert.

In Dieckhoff's view, greater autonomy for Lebanon would work in Israel's favor because Syria would have less influence on Lebanon's internal affairs.

Now that a door has recently opened for French involvement in the Middle East, its ability to make a difference remains to be seen.

"My personal opinion is that there is always a contradiction between France's ambitions and its means to fulfill them," said Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations.