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PM's gaffe flusters French

With a single word, French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has angered the Arab world, boosted President Jacques Chirac, and highlighted the tense power-sharing scheme known in France as "cohabitation."

During a visit to the West Bank, Mr. Jospin called Hizbullah guerrilla attacks against Israeli soldiers in southern Lebanon a "terrorist" activity.

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His comment on Thursday seemed to unilaterally tilt French policy away from its traditional sympathy for the Arabs toward Israel. It not only angered Arab countries, but Mr. Chirac as well. Chirac reprimanded Jospin and said in a statement that "Putting this impartiality in question would strike a blow to the credibility of our foreign policy."

In the West Bank, several hundred angry Palestinian students threw stones at the French premier and jumped on his bullet-proof Mercedes.

French commentators expect Jospin to keep trying to undermine Chirac's authority. "As the elections approach, the prime minister will want to be more present on the international scene," Pascal Boniface, head of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations, wrote in Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper. "The tone will get tougher."

Noel Mamere, a leading figure among Jospin's Green coalition partners, concurred: "Cohabitation has taken a combative turn."

Meanwhile, the left-wing newspaper Libration criticized Jospin for a "blunder" that it said had caused "considerable damage" to France's image abroad by trying to score points against Chirac in the run-up to their battle for the French presidency in 2002.

The flap was made worse by the fact Jospin began his career as a diplomat and said last month he could do better than Chirac in foreign policy if he were not held back by cohabitation.

Public opinion polls show French voters disapprove whenever either man tries to score partisan points off the other.

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