Chirac relives Lebanese dream

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The Independent Online

Naqqoura, Southern Lebanon

A loudspeaker crackled and Chirac's Own, the 240 Frenchmen of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon,snapped to attention. The President of France had arrived to salute his tiny contingent in the Levant, so small they do not even have a band. A series of tinny marching songs (circa June 1940, or so it seemed), came from the loudspeakers as the unit whom the French Defence Ministry would most like to disband, but whom President Chirac refuses to withdraw, received the honour of France.

So tiny is the French contribution to the peace-keeping force in Southern Lebanon that the UN call it merely the "French Component". But their presence here over the years since 1978, during which they boasted a battalion, cost them 28 dead, losses, if the French are to be believed, who were "martyred" for Lebanon. There lies the rub. The 240 French soldiers in Naqqoura, logistics specialists, transport drivers and the like, represent a French dream: that France maintains its "presence", that sometime in the coming years the people of Lebanon will wish to seek France's protection once more and return to that mythic relationship of love and loyalty which Paris believes existed under the 1920 French mandate.

Mr Chirac's intentions were clear as he stood in front of the memorial to the French dead. France stood ready to guarantee the sovereignty of Lebanon after a Middle East peace, he said. France would continue its long, traditional friendship with Lebanon. French troops along the Lebanese- Israeli border? Was that what the French President was offering in the aftermath of a Middle East accord which more and more Lebanese suspect will never reach fruition? Or French military security for Lebanon, if a new peace agreement is to be coaxed from the ruins of the old?

Two hours earlier, at the Maronite Patriarch's Palace at Bkerke, north of Beirut, he had promised the frail Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir that France would support Lebanon's integrity as a sovereign state and added - Damascus please note - that although the Lebanese war had ended five years ago, "more humiliating is that it [Lebanon] loses every day a little more of its identity, of its dignity as an independent sover- eign country." There are 22,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon and Mr Chirac seemed happy to reflect Christian anxiety about their presence.

But the Christian Maronites who are supposed to be France's allies had forgotten some of their traditional politeness when President Chirac arrived at Bkerke.

"Aoun was yesterday the honour of France," a man shouted of the rebel Christian Lebanese general who fought the Syrian Army in 1989 and then sought sanctuary at the French Embassy in Beirut.

"Today he is the prisoner of France." General Aoun lives in exile outside Paris, on condition he does not engage in political debate, a promise that he has repeatedly broken. "No elections under occupation," a banner that was held by another Christian, referring to this year's parliamentary elections, told the French President.

But Mr Chirac thought differently. The Christians must be masters of their own destiny, he said. They should participate in their country's election. They should vote.

At Naqqoura, in Israel's occupation zone, he was presented to a party of schoolchildren whose teacher embarked on a long speech of love for France. The President's eyes swivelled with irritation towards his Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette who was forced to stand and watch this loquacious friend of France speaking for longer than the President had addressed his own troops.

No wonder they seemed happier at the UN cocktail party afterwards, where Chirac's Own helped him to chilled champagne in a garden above the Mediterranean. Here, surely, was la mission civilisatrice Francaise.