- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 17, 2004

PARIS — At a time when Muslim extremists in Iraq are killing even hostages who are fellow Muslims, France is meeting the limits of its Arab-friendly policy and finds itself with few options, analysts say.

Separate whistle-stop tours by Foreign Minister Michel Barnier and French Muslim leaders have so far failed to secure the release of two French reporters held hostage in Iraq since mid-August.

Last week, two of France’s three major television networks announced they were pulling out of the country until further notice.

A French engineer was gunned down in Jidda, Saudi Arabia, this month in what has initially been ruled a terrorist attack.

But as Paris confronts the same dangers as any pro-Iraq-war ally of the United States, it seems unlikely to revise its Middle East policy anytime soon.

“Seen by some from Iraq, we’re part of the West — they’re not making much difference between the Europeans and the Americans,” said Remy Leveau, a specialist in Islam and Middle East politics at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris. “We’re seen as infidels.”

“But I doubt this is ever going to lead to a French rapprochement with the American policy,” Mr. Leveau added. “We certainly aren’t going to be intervening in Iraq.”

Mr. Leveau’s assessment was underscored by several recent statements from French officials — including President Jacques Chirac himself last week — that Paris had no intention of changing its stand on Iraq, including its refusal to send forces into the country.

France is also wary of a too-enthusiastic endorsement of President Bush’s new call for an international conference on Iraq, fearful, observers say, of giving the Republican president political ammunition at home in the Nov. 2 election.

Indeed, Paris and Moscow initially floated the Iraq conference idea earlier this year — and received a tepid reception from Washington.

Now, it is France’s turn to stall, wrote Le Figaro newspaper recently.

“It has nothing against an international conference on Iraq. It is even favorable. … But … if French diplomacy holds to anything, it’s certainly not to be enrolled by the administration of George W. Bush in what could be a war machine against candidate John F. Kerry,” the newspaper said.

While Paris’ policy of engaging the Muslim community has offered few paybacks in the hostage crisis, there is no indication to date either that journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot have been killed.

But for the moment, an official French doctrine of engagement in the Middle East is being matched with an unofficial one of disengagement in the region’s hottest spots.

The Foreign Ministry has published a new list of 27 countries that French nationals are discouraged to go to — including Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

TF1 and France 3 television stations also announced they would not be replacing returning crews from Iraq until the security situation improves.

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