Royal's first foreign tour blighted by blunders

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The Independent Online

The first foreign tour by the French presidential contender Ségolène Royal floundered in the treacherous quicksand of Middle East politics yesterday.

Mme Royal was accused of naivety and "shocking clumsiness" by domestic opponents after appearing to approve of the words of a Hizbollah politician who accused Israel of "Nazism".

The Socialist presidential candidate, who has no experience of foreign affairs, seems mostly to have been the victim of an interpreting error. The incident nonetheless delighted her opponents and confirmed the fears of those who warned her that the Middle East - and Lebanon in particular - was a dangerous place to start a crash course as a stateswoman.

At a meeting with politicians from all political factions in Lebanon on Friday, Mme Royal listened to a long statement by a Hizbollah member of parliament, Ali Amar, who attacked what he described as the "unlimited dementia" of US policy in the middle east.

In the version of his speech translated for journalists, he went on to say that the "Zionist entity" (Israel) represented "Nazism as wicked as the Nazism which once occupied France".

In reply, Mme Royal thanked him for his "frankness" and said that she shared many of his views, especially his comments on the United States.

"I would only have one point of difference," she said. "I cannot refer to Israel as an 'entity' as you do. The state of Israel exists and has a right to security." Mme Royal said nothing about the "Nazi" reference, therefore seeming to approve it. When criticised later, she said that her interpreter - not the same one who had translated for the journalists - had missed out M. Amar's reference to "Nazism".

Her explanation was confirmed by the French ambassador to Lebanon, Bernard Emié. He is known to be close to President Jacques Chirac and has no particular reason to help Mme Royal out of a jam.

All the same, the Socialist candidate's centre-right political opponents pounced on the opportunity to portray Mme Royal as a blundering lightweight. They criticised her for agreeing to meet a Hizbollah politician in the first place and for not objecting to his tirade against the US.

Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French Foreign Minister, warned her that the Middle East was not a place to visit with simplistic ideas. François Fillon, a centre-right politician close to Nicolas Sarkozy, her chief rival for the presidency next year, accused Mme Royal of making "shocking errors".

"To allow the allies and friends of France, whether the US or Israel, to be insulted without reacting is a serious mistake," he said.

He and other political opponents also criticised Mme Royal for planning - before changing her mind - to speak to officials of the militant Palestinian organisation Hamas during a visit to Gaza.