France to Cut Syria Ties Over Lebanon Presidential Crisis

Sarkozy: Paris to have no more contact with Damascus until we have proof Syria will let Lebanon choose president.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Sunday he had instructed his staff to suspend diplomatic contacts with Syria until Paris has proof that Damascus is working for a consensus president in Lebanon.

Speaking in Egypt after talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Sarkozy said he had no regrets about his previous contacts with Syrian President Bashar Assad but the time had come for deeds rather than words from Syria.

"We cannot wait any longer. Syria must stop talking, must demonstrate [with deeds]," he said.

"I will not make any more contacts with Syria ... [and] all of my colleagues ... as long as there is no proof of Syria's will to let Lebanon choose a consensus president," he added.

Lebanon has not had a president since Nov. 23 due to disagreements between the anti-Syrian ruling coalition and the Damascus-backed opposition over the country's political orientation.

Syrian Information Minister Mohsen Bilal called Sarkozy's comments surprising, telling Syrian state television that Damascus was working with France to reach an agreement on a president who represents all Lebanese.

Rival leaders have agreed on army chief General Michel Suleiman as a consensus candidate to be president but they are still wrangling over how to share power once he takes office.

The conflict reflects a regional struggle for influence between Syria and Iran on one side, and the United States and its European and Arab allies on the other.

France, Lebanon's former colonial ruler, played a lead role in mediating the agreement on Suleiman's candidacy and has been frustrated that the deal has not yet gone through.

The French president spoke with Syrian President Bashar Assad as recently as the beginning of December to urge him to facilitate the election in Lebanon. Sarkozy sent his chief of staff, Claude Gueant, to Damascus in early November, and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner met his Syrian counterpart Walid al-Moallem earlier that month on the sidelines of an Iraq conference in Turkey.

"France has taken the responsibility of talking with Syria," said Sarkozy. "One must recognize today that we cannot wait any longer, Syria must stop talking and now must act."

Mubarak told the same news conference it was unacceptable that Lebanon should go for months without a president and this could lead to unspecified complications.

He appealed to Syria to use its influence in Lebanon to make sure parliament elects a new president.

"I ask Syria to intervene with the influence that it basically has in Lebanon to work to create agreement," he said.

Sarkozy also called on Israel to halt settlement construction as a gesture to push forward peace negotiations with the Palestinians.

"I have said on several occasions... that it is the moment for the Israelis to make some gestures that would show that peace is possible - including a freeze on the implantation of colonies," Sarkozy said, using the French word for the settlements.

Sarkozy met Mubarak in the last days of a personal vacation the French president has taken in Egypt the past week. Later Sunday, Sarkozy toured the pyramids with his girlfriend, supermodel-turned-singer Carla Bruni.