Robert Fisk: Day of jackals as Paris marks the overthrow of a monarch

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The Independent Online

The Caliph of Damascus celebrated the overthrow of the French king yesterday. Bashar al-Assad looked quite at home, standing in his pale blue suit, wearing those inevitable Baathist sunglasses, occasionally clapping the precision drill of the French regiments in front of him, some of whom spent decades repressing Arab nations.

The 1st Regiment of Spahis must surely have been of interest. Was it not this same French army which overthrew the first independent Arab government of Syria in 1920, coldly executing the minister of defence every bit as brutally as their predecessors chopped off Louis XVI's head? But Bashar looked every inch the self-confident President of Syria. As well he might.

Who could have imagined, just six months ago, that the man accused of Rafiq Hariri's murder – now hated by ex-president Jacques Chirac – would be standing a few metres from President Sarkozy of France, basking in the warmth of Parisian hospitality. Were there not a few soldiers in the Bastille Day parade who remembered the murder of 58 of their comrades at the French military headquarters in Lebanon in 1983 and that the French, at the time, blamed Bashar's father, Hafez, for his supposed complicity? But there were no end of cruel Arab regimes represented on the podium yesterday.

There was Sarkozy's co-host at the Mediterranean summit, President Hosni Mubarak, whose secret police regularly use electricity on their prisoners and whose prison guards force inmates to rape each other.

And there were the representatives of Algeria, whose policemen used to pump water into their prisoners till they burst; and Tunisia, where about a third of the population are paid spies for the secret police. And Morocco, where journalists are locked up for offending our latest plucky little king; and Israel, whose gentle treatment of all Palestinian prisoners has to be seen to be believed.

No wonder the French flics and "force de renseignement" and the Arab "mukhabarat" and any number of other dark figures littered the pavements around the Place de la Concorde yesterday. No one, it seems, can forget The Day of the Jackal, although tens of thousands of Arabs might have concluded that there were jackals enough on the podium alongside M. Sarkozy.

The French commentariat had bought the presidential line, prison hook and definitely sinker. "A winning gamble," one of Le Figaro's grovelling writers called it. The French admired Bashar's wife, Asma – a woman whose intelligence and elegance far surpass that of Madame La Presidente Carla, whose purple and red outfit matched the uniforms of the Foreign Legionaires. But the French still haven't learned the secret of Syrian foreign policy. Like the visa hunters in Casablanca, the Syrians wait. And wait. And wait. And in the end, there comes, inevitably, an invitation to Bastille Day.

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