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What are the French up to in the Mideast?

PARIS, Feb. 29 (JTA) — Does France suddenly have two foreign policies toward Israel?

That’s the question left in the wake of Lionel Jospin’s visit to Israel last week.

The French prime minister broke ranks with the country’s long- standing foreign policy by taking a surprising pro-Israel stance and denouncing the “terrorist attacks” of Hezbollah — the anti-Israeli fighters in southern Lebanon who are popular with many Arab states long allied with France.

Such comments, which spurred a barrage of rocks aimed at Jospin’s head courtesy of Palestinian protesters, also created controversy in France because it diverges from the country’s official policy of impartially supporting Middle East peace.

French government officials are scrambling to clean up after Jospin’s unexpected statements and reassure the international community that France has not changed any policy. The embarrassed French President Jacques Chirac, whose traditional control over foreign affairs could be threatened by his rival Jospin, upbraided the prime minister with a stern lecture as soon as Jospin returned to France last Sunday.

While France is reeling at the sudden bluntness of the prime minister, analysts see Jospin’s move as calculated to boost France’s role as a power broker in Lebanese and Israeli relations as well as 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.” Pundits saw Jospin’s statements as a political swipe at Chirac as France starts to look forward to elections in 2002.

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

Many protested that the largely tacit agreement that Chirac focus on foreign affairs while Jospin conducts domestic policy now seems jeopardized to the detriment of France’s power and unity in international affairs. Such destabilization, according to analysts, would hinder France’s effectiveness as president of the European Union in the second half of this year.

Chirac told Jospin in a telephone call that his outbursts “could undermine the credibility of our foreign policy.”

Jospin seemed to scoff at his rival’s worry. Upon first hearing of Chirac’s ire, Jospin, still in Israel, muttered, “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.”

The United States, for example, has long classified Hezbollah as a terrorist group.

Jospin and Chirac agree that the quick withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon is the best way to improve the stability of Lebanon and the security of Israel.

Many interpreted Jospin’s remarks as paving the way for French forces to act as a buffer in Lebanon after Israeli troops withdraw.

“France is ready to facilitate” peace agreements, “even assume a role as guarantor in such or such a place,” Jospin said in Israel.

A spokesman from France’s Department of Foreign Affairs said by telephone that “France is ready to put some troops on the border of Israel and Lebanon to monitor a peace agreement or a cease-fire. But that ought to only happen in the context of a peace settlement between the two countries.”

While Jospin’s visit marked a high in the often tepid relations between France and Israel, for many in France’s Jewish community, Jospin’s support was overdue.

Accompanying Jospin to Israel was Henri Hajdenberg, president of the European Jewish Congress, who 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.”

Throughout his visit to Israel, Jospin praised the geographical and cultural ties between Israel and Europe.

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.”

However, once Jospin arrived back home, the French press quickly lambasted him for his seemingly rogue policy pronouncements. The leftist daily Liberation called the Israel visit a serious “blunder” and saw Jospin’s comments as maneuvering for the upcoming presidential vote.

The right-wing Le Figaro said Jospin’s speech “introduces a rupture in the diplomatic and political contract of the state.” Moreover, the paper said, “It didn’t just happen in a marginal place like the Ivory Coast, but the place that is most sensitive to the European civil wars: Israel and the Arab states!”

French government ministers did their best to clean up the chaos sown by Jospin’s remarks.

France’s minister of foreign affairs, Hubert Vedrine, said, “French policy on the peace process and its commitment to it seem clear to me.”

Yet as much as Vedrine tried to present a unified front, the most telling admission of the confusion Jospin caused came from Vedrine after a recent news conference.

Believing the microphones had been turned off and that the press had left, Vedrine turned to Jospin and complained that his comments diverged from all previous French policy. Jospin replied dryly that he intends to express himself with his own words and his own sensibility.

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