- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2001

PARIS — Syrian President Bashar Assad ends a state visit to France today showing no signs of having convinced his hosts of his regime's democratic credentials or political flexibility.

In talks with French President Jacques Chirac and Premier Lionel Jospin, the 35-year-old Syrian leader accused Israel of not being "ripe for peace" and in effect blocking it.

Any Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are bound to fail without pressure on the Jewish state, he said, urging France and other European powers to play a greater role in the Middle East instead of leaving the task to the United States, a country he considers totally committed to Israel.

Mr. Assad, whose father, Hafez, died last year after holding Syria in a tight grip for 30 years, tried to project an image of a modern leader working to reform his country's economic and political system. It was his first visit to a major Western capital since he succeeded his father.

While he spoke with Mr. Chirac for two hours at the Elysee Palace on Monday, several thousand people demonstrated in the streets of Paris protesting the visit of an "anti-Jewish dictator."

French media across the political spectrum pointed out that Syria's economy was still largely controlled by the state, that 800 political prisoners remained in Syrian jails and that 50 percent of the budget was devoted to the armed forces and security services.

Corruption permeates Syria's ruling class, said the conservative daily Le Figaro, adding that its extent effectively prevents the success of the Syrian president's "economic crusade."

Official sources said that while willing to participate in efforts to stop the carnage in the Middle East, France had no formula to reconcile the conflicting views of the Arabs and Israelis.

Some French officials appeared flattered by Mr. Assad's reported statement that "France is the most qualified country to understand the problems of our region, the most competent to understand the psychology of the Arab people."

Between the two world wars, Syria, together with Lebanon, was ruled by France.

While in Paris, the Syrian president stressed the economic and cultural aspects of his visit, asking for a greater French and European economic presence in his country.

"Foreign investors should know that we are determined to continue the process of modernization," he was quoted as telling French officials.


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