France to boycott Syria over Lebanon crisis

CAIRO (AFP) – France will have no more contact with Syria until Damascus shows willingness to let Lebanon end its long-running political crisis and find a new president, President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Sunday.

“The burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is taken away from being a city, and it shall be a ruinous heap.”
—Isaiah 17:1

“Open thy doors, O Lebanon, that the fire may devour thy cedars.”
—Zechariah 11:1

France “will have no more contact with Syria… until we have proof of Syrian willingness to let Lebanon appoint a president by consensus,” Sarkozy told journalists after talks in Cairo with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak covering thorny regional issues.

The French president was on his first official trip to the Middle East since taking office in May and his Cairo talks followed a private Egyptian holiday with his new girlfriend ex-model Carla Bruni and a swarm of paparazzi.

Former colonial power France “wants a president for Lebanon,” Sarkozy said. “It’s time to provide proof (of goodwill), it’s time for Syria to show it.”

Keen to stress a continuation of his predecessor Jacques Chirac’s Arab-friendly policies, Sarkozy called on Israel to make gestures to show its commitment to peace with the Palestinians.

“I’ve said several times… that it’s time for Israel to make gestures which would show that peace is possible, including ending settlements,” in the occupied West Bank, Sarkozy said.

“Our position (toward Israel) is unchanging, being a friend doesn’t mean being complacent,” Sarkozy said,

Sarkozy has ruffled Arab feathers by showing friendship for Israel and rejecting anti-Americanism, with sections of the Egyptian press deriding him as President George W. Bush’s new poodle, replacing British ex-premier Tony Blair.

While the US remains Israel’s key ally, France is seen by many as the Western power most able to end Lebanon’s political impasse.

“It’s time for Syria to prove with facts what it has not stopped saying in speeches,” Sarkozy said. “We are now waiting for acts on Syria’s part and not speeches.”

Only last month, Sarkozy called Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, reopening top-level contacts after a three-year break in a bid to end Lebanon’s political crisis, Syrian media reported at the time.

And also in November, while French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner shuttled between rival leaders in Beirut, two aides to Sarkozy also met Assad in Damascus.

Mubarak described the political deadlock in Lebanon as “dangerous” and appealed to Syria to “use its influence in Lebanon to work towards reconciliation so that the parliament elects a president”.

Syria pulled its troops out of Lebanon in 2005 after a nearly 30-year presence in the face of strong international and domestic pressure but continues to be accused of meddling in Lebanese affairs.

Lebanon has been without a president since November 23 when Syrian-backed incumbent Emile Lahoud ended his term with rival parties unable to agree on a successor.

A parliamentary vote to elect a president has been postponed 11 times amid sharp divisions between the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the opposition, backed by Syria and Iran.

A Lebanese pro-government MP hailed the new tougher line from Paris.

“These comments express the disillusionment of the Arab world and the international community about the chances of agreeing anything positive with the Syrian regime,” said Wael Bou Faour.

Earlier this month, US President George W. Bush also ruled out direct talks with the Syrian leader, saying: “My patience ran out on President Assad a long time ago.”

On Sunday, Sarkozy also said France would free up funds for a planned international tribunal intended to try those behind a series of assassinations in Lebanon that began with the murder of former president Rafiq Hariri in 2005.

UN investigators probing Hariri’s murder have identified several people who they say may have been involved in the slaying, but no one has been charged.

Many in Lebanon blame Syria for the attacks, charges denied by Damascus.

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