- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 8, 2004

NICOSIA, Cyprus — France has taken tentative steps to increase its profile in the Middle East, although diplomats describe the results so far as disappointing.

Its policy of support for the Palestinian cause has not brought any solid dividends, and protagonists on both sides of the Middle East minefield have remained skeptical about the effect of the latest French efforts.

According to diplomatic assessments, French President Jacques Chirac envisages intensified efforts to involve the European Union and the United Nations in the stalled Middle East peace process, an idea opposed by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as well as by the Bush administration.

French sources say Mr. Chirac would like to establish various forums or “talking shops” on the Arab-Israeli conflict and Iraq, at which France could exercise influence and promote its role.

Diplomats cite Mr. Chirac’s visit to Libya and his treatment of the illness and death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat as perhaps the most significant recent moves targeting the Arab world. Mr. Arafat had been transported in a French military plane for medical care in France and treated as a head of state after his death.

Although appreciated by the Arab world and by the 5 million Muslims in France, the gesture was insufficient to turn France into a major player on the Middle Eastern scene, diplomats said.

Mr. Chirac’s visit to Libya also failed to generate significant political dividends despite a pact on “strategic cooperation and political consultation” signed by the two countries. Traveling with Mr. Chirac to Tripoli last month were about 20 leading French businessmen searching for joint ventures as Libya emerges from international isolation.

Although France prides itself on its contacts, influence and popularity among the Arabs, it has been unable to secure freedom for two French journalists kidnapped in Iraq in August. The two, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, are said to be in the hands of a small terrorist group calling itself the Islamic Army of Iraq.

French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier spent a week traveling to various Arab capitals in an effort to obtain the release of the journalists.

Although France has “a high-profile diplomacy and influence” in the Middle East, French officials said, it was unable to establish direct or even indirect contacts with the kidnappers.

On the whole, Mr. Barnier has handled foreign policy in a more cautious and pragmatic manner than his flamboyant predecessor, Dominique de Villepin. Diplomats describe Mr. Barnier’s approach toward problems in the Middle East as “careful, nonconfrontational and characterized by a wait-and-see attitude.”

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