Chirac buries a broken past

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The portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and Imam Mousa Sadr had been removed from the airport road the night before. More than 150 soldiers in their new American helmets had surrounded the headquarters of the Lebanese trade unions; there would be no protests for higher wages to mar Jacques Chirac's visit. Only when he walked into the restored parliament building on the old Beirut front line did the President come face to face with Lebanon's continuing war.

As Mr Chirac sat stony faced on the dais above the 128 assembly members, Nabih Berri, the speaker of the Lebanese parliament, insisted that resistance to foreign occupation could not be described as "terrorism", and compared the Lebanese guerrilla forces who are fighting the Israeli occupation in southern Lebanon to the French resistance, which struggled against the Nazis.

Since many of the Lebanese fighters are members of the pro-Iranian Hizbollah - whose satellite groups kidnapped French civilians during the Lebanese civil war and blew up the French paratroop headquarters in the city in 1983 - Mr Berri's words were unlikely to commend themselves to the French President.

But as the first international leader to visit Lebanon since the end of the 1975-90 civil war, he was all grace and favour. When he responded to Mr Berri, it was to quote Charles de Gaulle, insisting France would help in Lebanon's reconstruction and would support it to become "the economic and financial heart of the Middle East".

Here was a phrase that might not find favour with Israelis, who very much intend to make sure that Israel, rather than Lebanon, becomes the new economic powerhouse of the region, always supposing the crumbling peace process can be saved. But Mr Chirac had some coded messages for both sides.

France wanted respect, he said, for UN Security Council resolution 425, which calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon - but he wanted, too, to see "the Lebanese security forces alone" guard their sovereign territory after an Israeli withdrawal. In other words - although he did not say so directly - France wanted Syria's 22,000 troops to leave, once the Israelis have completed their withdrawal.

Since President Assad has always insisted that the Syrians will stay until the last Israeli has left, there was nothing in the speech to offend Damascus. And Christian Lebanese groups who have been complaining about Syria's military presence will not have objected to Mr Chirac's remarks on the need for an exclusively Lebanese army to control Lebanon.

His references to resolution 425 received prolonged applause from an audience which included six Hizbollah members of parliament and the Iranian ambassador.

Did he reflect, one wondered, on the fact that an organisation closely associated with that same Hizbollah had killed 58 French soldiers in the 1983 suicide bombing, a slaughter to which he is to unveil a memorial in the grounds of the French embassy tomorrow morning?

But history can be cruel and Mr Chirac's visit is intended to symbolise a new future rather than a broken past, for both the Lebanese and the French.