La paix, la justice, l'amitie - et un grand tour de force

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Beirut - Greeted in Beirut by two mini-skirted "Miss Lebanons", honoured in Palestine by parents who are calling their first-born "Jacques Chirac" and immortalised in the Lebanese capital by a street which will bear his name: is there no end to the adulation heaped upon the 63-year old Frenchman who has fallen in love with the Middle East - or at least the Arab bit of it? He was at it again yesterday morning, tilting at America's exclusive - and impotent - management of the "peace process", urging Lebanese Christian students to support their country's imperfect democracy, denouncing "double standards" in the region.

Even in Lebanon, in the last press conference of his tour, there was a truly Gallic snub for France's other partners in the European Union. Behind President Chirac stood a large tricolour on a brass stand. Almost hidden behind it was the starry banner of the union; close inspection showed that French embassy officials had placed the brass stand of the tricolour on top of the base of the European flag.

Had Mr Chirac any reply, I asked, to the EU Commissioner Leon Brittan, who had urged European countries to "abstain from independent action" of the kind the French president was undertaking? The French presidential hands swept open in an arc of immense and haughty innocence. "The commissioners must abstain from intervention in all affairs that do not concern them," came the reply. How the ghost of Charles de Gaulle, who once served in Lebanon as a young soldier during the French mandate, must have clapped his phantom hands at the back of the hall.

It has, all in all, been a remarkable week for a French president whose popularity at home is dissolving almost as fast as his stock in the Arab world is skyrocketing. The message for the Arabs has, after all, been the same: Israel must honour its "peace process" accords, Israel must withdraw from all occupied Arab land, the expansion of Jewish settlements must end, the status of Jerusalem must remain open for negotiation. The danger, of course, is that Mr Chirac, showering his Arab hosts with amour and vague promises of financial assistance, is raising expectations that cannot be fulfilled. It is all very well to promise France's steadfast support for la paix, la justice, la democratie and l'amitie - and how the heavenly aspirations have been scattered about this week - but quite another to prove that France can actually deliver on these pledges.

Yet historians may look back to this extraordinary week as the moment that symbolised the rapidly changing winds in the Middle East. America's credibility in the Arab world is collapsing, fuelled by its refusal to hold Israel to its signed peace agreements. Put at its simplest, the Arabs no longer trust America. And now, at this moment of despair, along comes the new voice of the old Europe, encouraging them not to lose hope, arguing that the "imbalance" in Middle East affairs must be corrected, that UN resolutions must be obeyed. All memories of the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreement that destroyed the nascent Arab nation in the days of our grandfathers had been erased.

It is possible - indeed, necessary - to be cynical about Chirac's motives. But nations do not become great unless they behave like great powers. And France - at least in the eyes of millions of Arabs - is becoming great again. They will be happy to see a street named after him in Beirut; and they will easily forget that less than a mile away another street in that same city bears another name: that of a certain Monsieur Picot.