PARIS, Aug 31 (JTA) — Regardless of the fate of two French journalists held hostage in Iraq, appeals from throughout the Arab world for the men’s release are likely to reinforce France’s pro-Arab foreign policy, observers say. The kidnappers who took freelance journalist Christian Chesnot and his colleague Georges Malbrunot, a special envoy in Iraq from the leading conservative daily Le Figaro, demanded that France revoke its ban on Muslim veils and other religious symbols in public schools, which was to take effect when schools opened this week. The kidnappers, a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq, described the French legislation as “unjust and an attack against Islam and personal liberty.” The group has claimed responsibility for kidnapping and killing other Westerners in Iraq. While the ultimatum to France presented no specific threat to the lives of the journalists, it said the French government had 48 hours to respond to the statement. On Monday, the ultimatum was extended for an additional 24 hours. French leaders made clear that they had no intention of altering the law, while utilizing France’s strong contacts in the Arab World to try to free the hostages. Within hours, radical Shi’ite and Sunni Muslim groups, ranging from the Cairo-based Muslim Brotherhood to the Lebanese Hezbollah, were lining up to demand the hostages’ release. The surge of solidarity for France within the Arab world was unprecedented, particularly since no such support was evident when Egyptian and Lebanese hostages were kidnapped — and later murdered — in Iraq. Principal among those calling for the hostages’ release was Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, who on Sunday made a personal appeal to the terrorists in an interview with the French public TV channel Antenne 2. In the interview, Arafat noted that French president Jacques Chirac was “a good friend of the Palestinian people,” and said the kidnapped journalists “were helping the Iraqi and the Palestinian cause.” Arafat later repeated the call on the international radio station RMC Proche Orient, an Arabic-language channel owned by France’s international public broadcasting network, Radio France International. Arafat regards France as a key ally, particularly after French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier recently visited him in Ramallah, despite pressure from Israel to avoid the Palestinian leader. France also was a leading player in persuading European Union states to back a motion at the United Nations last month condemning Israel’s West Bank security barrier. Arafat was not alone among Palestinian groups calling for the release of the French hostages. The Palestinian Islamic movement Hamas issued a declaration Tuesday in which it said the release of the journalists would have “positive repercussions on the political positions of France at both popular and official levels towards Palestinian and Iraqi causes.” While the group reiterated its criticism of the ban on Muslim veils, it noted France’s more favorable policy towards the Palestinians “compared with other European countries,” as well as its opposition to “the totally partial American support of the Zionist entity.” Still more telling was a call from Hezbollah’s television station, Al-Manar, which earlier this month slammed the French government for appealing to French courts to ban Al-Manar’s satellite broadcasts because of their anti-Semitic content. Such remarks appear to confirm the perennial claim by pro-Israel groups in France that French foreign policy is overwhelmingly hostile to Israel. According to Michel Gurfinkiel, editor-in-chief of Valeurs Actuelles, that policy is only likely to be reinforced, whatever the fate of the journalists. “If they are released, it will only serve to vindicate the pro-Arab policy, and even if they are killed, it will still be clear that 90 percent of the Muslim world stood behind France,” Gurfinkiel told JTA. Michel Darmon, a retired French general who heads the pro-Israel lobby group France-Israel, agreed. “The message is that Michel Barnier gets the total support of the Arab League for the hostages’ release,” Darmon said, referring to the foreign minister. “They all condemn it to show how moderate they are.” Both men said the principal damage to France would be internal. Gurfinkiel said he was disturbed by the position of local “Muslim militants acting as go-betweens mediating with the French government.” When news of the hostages broke Sunday, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin called French Muslim leaders to the ministry to appeal for their release. Messages of solidarity were read out from Dalil Boubakeur, the moderate leader of France’s Muslim Council, but also from the more radical Union of French Islamic Organizations, the largest group on the Council and a body with strong links to the international Muslim Brotherhood. Darmon slammed De Villepin’s move, telling JTA it was “undignified for France’s secular republic to call in religious leaders.” While most Muslim leaders have criticized the law banning veils, even the more radical groups say they have advised young Muslim girls to obey the law when they return to school on Thursday. But their position still contrasts sharply with France’s principal Jewish organizations, which largely have supported the law. Jewish groups regard the law as a bulwark against rising Islamic fundamentalism, which they see as a principal force in anti-Semitic violence in France. While the law also bans yarmulkes as well as large crosses in state schools, it is thought unlikely to affect Jewish students since those who might wear yarmulkes likely attend private Jewish schools. Nevertheless, France’s chief rabbi, Joseph Sitruk, recently said he was troubled by the yarmulke banning until he, too, was brought into line by support for the law from his employer, the Consistoire Central, France’s principal Jewish religious organization. By extending the ultimatum Monday evening, the kidnappers seemed to indicate that France’s opposition to the war in Iraq and its support for the Palestinians was increasingly likely to win its journalists a reprieve. The contrast was furthered the same day by news that 20 kidnapped Nepalese workers had been executed by another Iraqi Islamist terrorist group.
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