French premier pays high price for labeling Hezbollah terrorist

PARIS — Does France have two foreign policies toward Israel?

That's the question left in the wake of French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's goodwill visit to Israel last week.

The premier broke ranks with the country's long-standing foreign policy on Feb. 24 by taking a surprising pro-Israel stance and denouncing the "terrorist attacks" of Hezbollah — the anti-Israeli guerrillas in southern Lebanon who are popular with many Arab states long allied with France.

His comment, which two days later spurred a barrage of stones aimed at Jospin's head courtesy of Palestinian protesters, also created a controversy in France because it diverges from what French President Jacques Chirac calls the country's official policy of "impartiality" toward Israel and the Arab world.

The United States and, of course, Israel have long classified Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

The embarrassed Chirac, whose traditional control over foreign affairs could be threatened by his rival Jospin, upbraided the prime minister with a stern lecture.

Chirac told Jospin that his outbursts "could undermine the credibility of our foreign policy."

Jospin seemed to scoff at his rival's worry.

"What is Chirac going to tell me, that I transgressed Middle East politics? It's not true. He can't tell me that the Hezbollah are angels," he said.

The stoning incident occurred Saturday after Jospin delivered a speech at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank.

As he was leaving, students went on the rampage, pelting the French dignitary with rocks and attacking his vehicle as he beat an undignified retreat from the campus.

French and Palestinian security agents surrounded Jospin and held briefcases over his head for protection as they bundled him into his waiting limousine. But they didn't prevent Jospin from getting hit in the head with one stone and suffering a slight wound.

Protesters continued pelting the car as it left the scene and some students jumped on the hood as it drove off.

Palestinian Minister of Planning Nabil Shaath was also hit by a stone, but was unhurt.

Jospin canceled a visit to a refugee camp in the Gaza Strip. And after a brief stop for an obligatory meeting with Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat, Jospin flew home.

Arafat condemned the attack on Jospin.

"The protesters do not represent the Palestinian people and do not represent the students of Bir Zeit. They only represent a force of darkness," Arafat said, before shutting down the campus for three days.

On Sunday, thousands of angry Palestinian students spilled out of West Bank classrooms to burn French flags and photographs of French premier.

"Jospin, take off the mask and show that you're a Jew," chanted 3,000 university students in Hebron.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah called on French leaders to punish the prime minister.

"Jospin is no longer welcome in Lebanon and I hope he will not consider visiting this country before he makes a clear apology," Hezbollah's deputy leader Sheikh Naim Kassem declared. "He has insulted the Lebanese people, the resistance and the feelings of Lebanese women and children suffering under the Zionist occupation."

In the southern Lebanese port city of Sidon, Lebanese Labor Minister Michel Moussa led 5,000 demonstrators, many of whom denounced Jospin as an "American agent."

While France, too, is reeling from the sudden bluntness of its prime minister, analysts see Jospin's move as calculated to boost France's role as a power broker in Lebanese and Israeli relations. They also see it as an attempt to bolster his own power-brokering capacity at home.

Since elections in 1997, the socialist Jospin and conservative Chirac have been in an uneasy power-sharing agreement termed "cohabitation."

Jospin's candid remarks riled supporters and opponents alike, who have grown accustomed to balanced, staid policy pronouncements ever since cohabitation began.

For many in France's Jewish community, Jospin's support was overdue.

Henri Hajdenberg, president of the European Jewish Congress, accompanied Jospin to Israel. Hajdenberg told the French daily Le Figaro that Jospin's visit is "a re-balancing."

"France lost confidence in Israel in 1967 and had never rediscovered it since," said Hajdenberg, who is also the president of CRIF, the umbrella group of secular French Jewish organizations.

Other French Jews praised the visit, but were skeptical that one weekend could change much for either France or Israel.

"I am pleased at what Jospin said, but I am too worried to rejoice," said Theo Klein, honorary president of CRIF. "I don't believe there is a change or turn in French policy and it is still between Lebanon and Israel and Syria to compose a difficult peace agreement. All that is new is that Jospin called Hezbollah by its real name."

According to Eliahu Ben-Elissar, Israel's ambassador to France, Jospin's visit "was a real success. He wanted to open a new chapter in French-Israeli relations and he clearly succeeded. He is a friend, and the rapport between our two countries is going to change."