Lebanon's champion wrong-footed by attack

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The scale of the casualties caused by Israel's raids on southern Lebanon yesterday left France in an awkward position, straddled between its earlier championing of Lebanon's cause and the more sympathetic consideration of Israel's position towards which it appeared to be moving. Just when France seemed on the point of combining its own unilateral peace effort with the US initiative and perhaps winning some of the credit for an eventual ceasefire, that ceasefire seemed further away than ever.

This was an unfortunate turn of events for France, which has seemed to be at least one move behind events ever since President Chirac initiated France's direct involvement by hosting the Lebanese prime minister in Paris on Sunday. Since then, France has had to watch as the Americans arrived with their own peace plan, the Lebanese prime minister travelled to London and the Israelis continued raids which made President Chirac's 'Long live independent Lebanon' call during his recent visit to Beirut sound hollow.

The French Foreign Minster, Herve de Charette, extended his Middle East shuttling yesterday, arriving in Tel Aviv to meet Israeli and American negotiators in an attempt to co-ordinate the two draft peace plans. Tomorrow he sets off for a second visit to Syria, where he could meet the special Iranian envoy.

The latest version of the plan he is carrying is said to call on Israel to refrain from all action against Lebanese civilians, on Lebanon to avoid all action against Israel from Lebanese soil, and on Hizbollah not to use offensive weapons against Israel - all to be monitored by third countries, including France and the US pending a longer-term solution. These details, however, were released before Mr de Charette met the American negotiators, and there was no indication of how it survived the meeting.

By yesterday it was already clear that France's initially unilateral approach had been considerably diluted. Official statements spoke of "coordination" with European partners, Mr de Charette had been authorised to discuss the French plan with Americans in Tel Aviv, and there was a small rash of articles in the French media, including the pro-Chirac Le Figaro, recognising almost for the first time the existence both of an Israeli point of view and of an American peace plan.