A Lot of French Bubbly

New winds are blowing in the Elysee Palace and in the Quai d'Orsay. Israel's Foreign Ministry follows these activities, but finds it hard to formulate a clear position as to what they mean.

Anyone who has been following the French diplomatic moves since the new administration was established in Paris is at risk of feeling slightly dizzy. Take this past week, for example: President Nicolas Sarkozy went to Algeria and Tunisia to promote his initiative for the establishment of a "Mediterranean Union." His wife Cecilia acted in Libya on behalf of the five Bulgarian nurses, who were sentenced to death there after being convicted of infecting hundreds of sick children with AIDS; and Prime Minister Francois Fillon went back and forth between Brussels, Berlin and Rome to arrange "French-European" portfolios, while Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner held discussions in Belgrade and Pristina on the future of the Serbian province of Kosovo.

The diplomatic effervescence continued with the initiative to convene "the Lebanese national dialogue," in which France broke its tradition of intervention in the Land of the Cedars by inviting Hezbollah to the talks, along with the rest of the quarreling factions in the country.

There is no doubt: New winds are blowing in the Elysee Palace and the Quai d'Orsay. At Israel's Foreign Ministry they are following all these activities with interest, but are still finding it hard to formulate a clear and unified position as to what they mean. We need more time, they say. Before he was elected president, Sarkozy praised the United States - "the largest democracy in the world"; scorned France's "arrogant criticism" of the war in Iraq and expressed his marked sympathy for Israel. One of Sarkozy's advisers even promised that the new administration would act against the "automatic instincts" of the Quai d'Orsay. In Jerusalem there were those who imagined a new "golden age" under Sarkozy; others poured cold water on this prediction, saying that if a change did occur in French foreign policy, it would be manifested mostly in tone and not in substance.

The implementation of France's "Lebanon initiative" has not helped settle the debate: A few days before the Lebanese delegations convened at Saint Cloud, near Paris, Sarkozy met with the families of the abducted Israeli soldiers Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser. The media reported that the French president called Hezbollah a "terror organization." In his day, former French prime minister Lionel Jospin, a Socialist, was reprimanded by the president, Jacques Chirac, when he used that same terminology during a visit to Israel in February 2000.

Since France had refused up to now to add Hezbollah to the European list of terror organizations, Sarkozy's statement was seen as a significant change in policy. Jewish organizations praised him, while the Syrian and Lebanese press attacked the president for his "Zionism." Hezbollah threats to boycott the meeting in France drew a clarification from the country's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, to the effect that Hezbollah should be seen as "an important political force." This time it was the Jewish organizations that came out against Sarkozy, whereas Hezbollah praised the change that had made French policy "balanced."

A senior French source denies that there has been a zigzag here: It all derives from media misinterpretation that did not report the presidential message verbatim, which presented nothing more than a general view that Hezbollah is "an important force that needs to play a constructive role in the Middle East, on the one hand, and to abandon its terror activity, on the other."

In any case, it is already possible to formulate a number of insights into the beginnings of the new French diplomacy:

1. French diplomatic activity is increasing and will continue to do so, including in the Middle East, a region where France aspires to strengthen its ties and expand its mediation attempts.

2. It is possible, of course, to ridicule Foreign Minister Kouchner's talk of "important progress" in the Lebanese arena, but what the Saudis, the Arab League and others tried in vain to do for many months has resulted, from the French perspective, in a success: The ice has been broken, the momentum has been maintained, and in less than two weeks the sides will meet to continue their talks in Beirut.

3. Officially, the French say that in no case should an equivalence be posited between Hezbollah and Hamas. There are those in Israel, however, who identify beneath the surface other signals as well: Without altering their negative judgment of the group, the French realize that pragmatism and realpolitik make it necessary to bring Hezbollah into any discussion of Lebanon's future. In the name of those same principles, Paris will not be able to leave Hamas outside of the political game in the long term.

4. The London Economist suggested this week that the real test of a change in French foreign policy will be manifested when Sarkozy realizes his intention to send Kouchner to Damascus. According to various assessments, had anti-Syrian Lebanese parliament member Walid Ido not been assassinated in June, that visit might well already have taken place. It would have brought about an end to the anomaly that pretends that it's acceptable, for the sake of Lebanon's stability, to hold talks with Iran but not with Syria. In the meantime Kouchner has not been totally idle, and chose as an interim procedure, earlier this week, to send his envoy, former ambassador Jean-Claude Cousseran, to sound the Syrians out.

5. One of the important and unsolved questions in Jerusalem concerns the coherence of France's foreign policy. While French officials swear that Sarkozy and Kouchner (who is a leftist in a rightist government) are one and the same, there are those who fear that the differing priorities of these two dominant and ambitious personalities will rise to the surface sooner or later, and endanger their unique partnership.