Chirac clings to France's place in the Levant

Foreign policy, folly - or distraction from home? Robert Fisk on the French leader's visit to to Beirut

WHAT on earth was Jacques Chirac doing yesterday, stepping yet again on to the lip of the Middle East volcano, its "peace process" decaying in the grave, its leaders warning of the explosion to come?

"Deeply concerned," was how the French President expressed his fears to his billionaire friend, the Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafiq Hariri. "The world cannot allow violence to resume." And there was much talk about Mr Chirac's own proposal for a French-hosted Middle East peace conference - which the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has already rejected. Was this a last reprieve for peace in the region? French presidential hubris? Or just folly?

It was Mr Chirac's third visit to Lebanon in as many years; and there he was yet again, talking about the supposedly indissoluble ties which bind Paris to Beirut, the long friendship and common traditions of France and Lebanon, the way in which the new French business school in Beirut will become "a vital part of Lebanon's renaissance". It went on and on. Jacques Chirac, it seems, just cannot tear himself away from the old French mandate of Grand Liban and its ever-hospitable prime minister.

True, it must be good to get away from Paris when French investigators are sniffing corruption ever closer to the Elysee. How different things must have been back in the early 1920s, when the one-armed high commissioner, General Henri Goureau, decided the future of Lebanon, Syria and southern Turkey from the mock-Mogul pile that is now the French embassy. Mr Chirac was marking its post-civil war reconstruction in colonial style yesterday, as Lebanese ministers and religious leaders came to pay court to the man who has promised never to desert Lebanon.

Could it be that even the approaching storm in the Middle East seems mild compared to the tempest threatening the palaces of Paris? There was, of course, no reference to these embarrassing distractions from presidential duty. Beneath the flowering trees of France's new Ecole Superieure des Affaires de Beyrouth, he spoke emotionally of francophonie - French being Lebanon's second language after Arabic - describing the tongue as "an open window on a cultural and human gathering of 500 million men and women".

Are the French worried English may soon become the second language of the Levant (if it is not already)? Could it be Lebanon's bankers prefer English to French? There was some mutual back-scratching. The Chirac visit was an additional sign of confidence in Lebanon, the Lebanese Finance Minister, Fouad Siniora, remarked as he eschewed the lashings of champagne bubbling under the jacaranda trees. France was Lebanon's second-largest trading partner, with 4,000 French companies now doing business here.

Or was Mr Chirac making a much deeper point: that American policy in the Middle East, held in check by the powerful Israeli lobby in Washington, was in tatters, and that the Arabs should turn to Paris for an alternative peace initiative? How the Americans (and Mr Netanyahu) must loathe him. How the Arabs must love him. He had told Mr Hariri of his desire to see Israel withdraw from southern Lebanon, and of France's desire to provide security guarantees in the event of an Israeli retreat. In which case, no doubt, stand by for the arrival of les paras.

Mr Chirac did understand that Israel's acceptance of UN Security Council Resolution 425, calling for an unconditional withdrawal, had in fact been conditional - and thus outside the terms of the UN resolution. The Israelis want their Hizbollah enemies disarmed before they leave; the Lebanese fear that a disarmed Hizbollah might persuade the Israelis to change their mind and stay. But there was a kind of gentle blindness about it all.

At one point, for example, Mr Chirac reminded hundreds of Lebanese that he was standing beside a Beirut street - rue Clemenceau - "which bears the name of one of the greatest figures in our (sic) history... who contributed, through his wisdom and goodwill, to the creation of modern Lebanon". Clemenceau, it might be remembered, was one of the Big Four at the Versailles peace treaty, whose promise to allow King Faisal to rule Syria was dishonoured by his successors when the Syrians decided they would prefer to rule themselves. Versailles set the seal on the frontiers of the Levant, borders which the local population of the time - including most of the people in what is now Lebanon - overwhelmingly rejected. But the Lebanese, ever polite hosts, smiled benevolently at Mr Chirac.

It was not a speech he would have made in Syria; but then he has been shrewd enough to build on his friendship with the Lion of Damascus, inviting Hafez al-Assad to Paris next month for the Syrian President's first visit in 22 years. Mr Chirac has been a hero of the Arab world since he blew his top at Israeli security men in Jerusalem 18 months ago - Robin Cook's shouting match with Jewish settlers was a shabbier affair - and there will be no false notes in his latest visit to Lebanon.

Outside the French residency this morning, however, there will be notes of a different kind as the Last Post is sounded while the President honours those Frenchmen who have died in Lebanon. They include not only thousands of colonial troops - Vichy soldiers fighting for Marshal Petain against the Free French in 1941 - and Frenchmen who died on UN service, but 58 French paratroopers, killed when their headquarters was blown up by a Lebanese suicide bomber in October 1983.

At the time, both the Americans (who lost 241 servicemen the same day) and the French suspected Syria was behind the slaughter... but that, as they say in politics, was yesterday.

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