How Chirac wooed and won over the Arab world

Middle East: French win a role for Europe in the region as people lose faith in commitment of the US
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He is the darling of the Arab world. In Beirut last night, in Amman yesterday morning, in the occupied West Bank and in Syria, President Jacques Chirac of France wooed and won the Muslims of the Middle East at the very moment when Washington's uncritical support for Israel has finally convinced the Arabs that Europe rather than America must be their ally.

Addressing Jordan's parliament yesterday, he even put in a good word for Iraq, expressing sympathy for the 18 million Arabs suffering as a result of UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein. Jordanian MPs went wild when he repeated his call for Israel to withdraw from all occupied Arab land "fully and without delay" and to implement its signed agreements with the Palestinians.

Press and television across the dictatorships of the Middle East are paying homage to their Jacobin saviour. Mr Chirac had objected to the oppressive Israeli security operation in Jerusalem, the Egyptian newspaper Al Ahram said, "with the gallantry of a knight in armour". The Saudi Al Medina went further. "Mr Jacques Chirac has shown himself a noble knight who knows how to enter history." The Emirate daily Al Bayan summed up Arab feelings - principally evoked by hearing Mr Chirac express their own point of view rather better than they usually do themselves - when it claimed that the French President "is defending the rights of justice against the exploitation, extremism and criminal politics adopted by Israel since its illegitimate (sic) creation".

That, of course, was not quite what Mr Chirac has said. He has repeatedly insisted on the recognition and security of Israel in his talks with Arab leaders and - despite a dangerous slip in his Ramallah speech, in which he appeared to call for talks on the future status of Israel rather than just Jerusalem, he has never failed to emphasise that France is a friend whom Israel can trust. But he has said what every Arab once wanted to hear the Americans say: that the Middle East peace agreement must be respected by Israel, that there must be a Palestinian state and that there must be total, unequivocal Israeli withdrawal from land seized in the 1967 war.

Mr Chirac warned the Jordanian parliament that "peace is in danger ... and if there is no peace, there will be no security". If Israel is in no mood to accept the self-evident truth of this message, the Arabs are. And when Mr Chirac calls for "the free determination by the Palestinians of their own future, in other words the foundation of a state", Arabs wonder whether they should not turn to Europe to guarantee the "peace process" they undertook so innocently with the US and Israel.

"The Iraqi people cannot be held responsible for decisions which they were not a party to," Mr Chirac told the Jordanians. "The way ahead is clear and involves the implementation of all Security Council resolutions - but only those resolutions." Iraq will have been the first to understand this was criticism of the US and Britain, which insist other conditions, including improved human rights, must be met before sanctions are lifted. Jordanian parliamentarians, like most of their countrymen and women, are sympathetic to Iraq if not President Saddam. It was significant Mr Chirac did not choose to utter a word of criticism against the Iraqi leader.

And why should he? It is, after all, not so many years ago that Mr Chirac was welcoming President Saddam at Orly airport with champagne and when France was entertaining the Iraqi leader to horse races while encouraging new trade agreements between Baghdad and Paris. And it cannot be long before regiments of French businessmen fly to those countries which have lavished so much praise upon Mr Chirac, to sop up the petrol dollars with offers of French technology, industrial expertise and, no doubt, as many tanks, jet-fighters and artillery pieces they can sell the Arabs.

But cynicism should not obscure the fact that France has tapped into the Middle East at the very moment when the Arabs found themselves betrayed. He said things which other leaders have been too fearful to say, and most Europeans will probably have agreed with him. It may prove to be a turning- point in the history of the region's relations with the outside world. Israel will remain America's ally, but in future Washington and Israel will have to acknowledge a French role in a deeply disillusioned Middle East; and thus a European role.