French adieu to befit head of state

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The Independent Online

France yesterday underlined its status as Europe's strongest ally of the Palestinians by sending the body of Yasser Arafat to Egypt with the full trappings of a head of state.

France yesterday underlined its status as Europe's strongest ally of the Palestinians by sending the body of Yasser Arafat to Egypt with the full trappings of a head of state.

Military honours were observed at an airfield near Paris where soldiers from the Republican Guards drew their swords in tribute as the coffin was placed on the French government plane.

France's Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, its Foreign Minister, Michel Barnier, and other senior officials stood alongside Mr Arafat's widow, Suha, as the French and Palestinian national anthems and a Chopin funeral march were played. Diplomats said France's send-off for Mr Arafat was designed to send a signal that Paris viewed him as a head of state, whatever the criticisms of him from Israel and the US.

France's President, Jacques Chirac, visited Mr Arafat in hospital and is not expected to attend the funeral in Egypt. M. Barnier will be there, as will the British Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw.

Events in Paris raised eyebrows in some capitals. One European diplomat observed: "The French never lose an opportunity to suck up to the Palestinians." Nevertheless, the EU is united in hoping for a new opportunity for peace.

The EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said: "The situation has changed so radically that I hope the position of the American government will be constructive and committed." He called on the new Palestinian leadership to step forward for fresh negotiations, and said Israel should recognise Mr Arafat's successor as a potential partner in ending the strife.

With the US, United Nations and Russia, the EU is trying to help push the peace process towards the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

In Israel, the Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, said that after the funeralthe Israelis would launch a campaign against Mr Arafat because it is feared "Arafat will become a national hero and freedom fighter".

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