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France Crusades For Influence In Middle East


Nine-hundred years after the first French crusader rode into the Middle East, France is back.

Not as a conqueror, but as a partner, an advocate for European aid to the region, and - most important - an alternative to American diplomatic clout.

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So says France's top diplomat, returning from his - and France's - first venture into Middle East shuttle diplomacy.

French diplomats arrived in the Mideast eight days earlier than the Americans. They provided 80 percent of the ideas contained in last weekend's agreement between Israel and Lebanon to cease current hostilities, says French Foreign Minister Herve De Charette.

The French claim rankles American diplomats, as well as some of France's European partners, who say that the independent French bid is not in line with the goal of a unified European foreign policy.

France has a long history in the Middle East, including ties to Lebanon's Maronite Christian community. When the League of Nations divided up the Mideast after World War I, France was awarded the mandate for Lebanon and Syria.

In 1956, a joint French and British force was ordered out of the Suez Canal Zone by the United States and Russia - a humiliation from the superpowers of the day that some French diplomats still feel keenly.

France also has high economic stakes in the region. Arab markets have been critical for French armaments manufacturers, who have been losing out to US rivals since the end of the Gulf war. French defense company Giat Industries, which has racked up $2.4 billion in losses in the last five years, says its best hope for future tank orders is in the Arab world.

In addition, French oil and engineering giants hope to pick up business as the redevelopment effort in Iran and Iraq gets under way.

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French pull double duty

From the start of his two weeks of consultations with Lebanese, Syrian, Israeli, and Iranian officials, Mr. De Charette made clear that the purpose of the visit was both to work out a cease-fire and to restore France's place in the region.

"At the request of the president, I came to defend the interests of France in the Middle East," the French foreign minister told the French weekly "Le Journal du Dimanche."

In response to the question, "Did you fear that the Americans would cut you out of the game?" De Charette told a French radio interviewer: "Perhaps they intended to; I don't know. But if they did, they didn't count on French determination."

Asked by an Israeli radio interviewer if he felt that France's shuttle diplomacy had disrupted the US effort, he replied: "It's disruptive only if you think that the US is the only power that has a right to act in the region."

French officials say they launched their own bid to resolve the conflict in a climate of international indifference. "When we came, we were alone, and no one seemed interested in the tragic crisis for the Lebanese people," said the French foreign minister. France mobilized all parties, and later America joined us, he said.

Moreover, he added, the American proposals were "in reality, the maximum demands presented by the Israelis, and naturally, you can't reach agreement unless you take account of the point of view of others. We tried to find a middle ground," said De Charette in an April 27 interview.

When US Secretary of State Warren Christopher and Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres announced this week's cease-fire agreement in Jerusalem, French and Lebanese officials made a parallel announcement in Beirut.

Diplomatic gains

The two-week diplomatic effort is being hailed as a victory by French officials. But it leaves French President Jacques Chirac with some fence-mending, especially with Israeli officials who resented French criticism of their bombing in Lebanon as well as French overtures to Iran.

Yesterday, President Chirac met with Israeli Prime Minister Peres, who is passing through Paris after a visit to the United States that included signing a new security agreement.

American officials play down the frictions caused by this dual diplomatic effort. "It's not productive to figure out who did what, when. We should just be glad that we got to this point," US Ambassador to the United Nations Madeleine Albright told journalists in Paris on Tuesday.

"What we have is an agreement that builds on the US-brokered 1993 agreement," adds another US official. "It's obvious that any agreement had to meet the needs of Israel, as well as those of Lebanon and Syria. Without Israeli cooperation, there is no peace process."

There are also fences to be mended with European partners, especially the Italians, who currently hold the European Union presidency, which is supposed to take the lead in developing joint foreign policy.

French officials say that the need for action was so urgent that detailed consultation with European partners was not possible. But they insist that key partners were informed of French intentions in advance.

"Ten minutes after President Chirac made his decision, he asked De Charette to contact [Italian Foreign Minister Susanna] Agnelli," says presidential spokeswoman Catherine Colonna. "He didn't wait to see all the abominable images [of civilian casualties] to react."

But as the 15-member European Union launches a year of negotiations to develop a common foreign policy, the go-it-alone style of the French diplomacy was troubling its neighbors. The new style of French diplomacy under Chirac is "impulsive," says a German diplomat.

"It makes it hard for France to coordinate" with its partners, he says.

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