Care and honours for Arafat reveal French Mideast aspirations

12th November 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 12 (AFP) - By looking after Yasser Arafat in his last days and sending his body home with full honours, France reinforced its image as a major Palestinian ally and attempted to position itself as a key player should the Middle East peace process now be reborn, observers say.

PARIS, Nov 12 (AFP) - By looking after Yasser Arafat in his last days and sending his body home with full honours, France reinforced its image as a major Palestinian ally and attempted to position itself as a key player should the Middle East peace process now be reborn, observers say.

Foreign Minister Michel Barnier acknowledged as much when he said Friday that France took in the late Palestinian Authority president because of longstanding ties.

"We welcomed him as we would have welcomed any leader who is a friend to France," he told Europe 1 radio in an interview from Cairo, where he attended a funeral service for Arafat alongside other foreign dignitaries.

"It's simply a question of humanity. It's also proof of the ties that have long existed between the Palestinian people, their leader and our country," he said.

French President Jacques Chirac personally made the decision to allow Arafat to fly to Paris on October 29 for emergency treatment of a serious illness that has not been publicly revealed.

The 75-year-old Palestinian leader was declared dead Thursday at the French military hospital treating him days after falling into a coma and being put on life-support machines.

France, with its veto power on the UN Security Council, five-million-strong Muslim community and regular dealings with Arab countries, has traditionally been seen as the only sympathiser of the Palestinian cause with the weight to challenge the pro-Israeli leanings of the United States.

Through the European Union, it has a place in the so-called international "quartet" sponsoring Middle East peace, alongside the United States, Russia and the United Nations.

In recent years, though, France's influence has been muted, particularly as US President George W. Bush's administration sided with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's plans to withdraw his troops from Gaza while ignoring negotiations with the Palestinians.

After seeing Arafat's body in the Paris hospital Thursday, Chirac told journalists that France would "continue to tirelessly act for peace and security in the Middle East and will do so with respect for the rights of the Palestinian and Israeli people."

Earlier that day, he issued a statement saying France intended to "put its full weight" into seeing an independent Palestinian state created alongside Israel.

"France has always wanted to play a role in that region, and while its gesture towards Yasser Arafat shows the interest it has in the continuity of Palestinian institutions, it also underlines an offensive diplomatic strategy consisting of anticipating history's course so as to be a necessary presence later on," the state-owned Radio France Internationale said in an online editorial Friday.

It said Chirac's image as a Palestinian ally increased by playing host to Arafat, who was able to pass away behind a cloak of French military secrecy, his doctors refusing to divulge what illness he suffered from or his cause of death.

France had a history of protecting Arafat. In 1982, its soldiers rescued the Palestinian leader from Israeli forces closing in on him in Beirut, and the following year it flew Arafat out of northern Lebanon as Syrian troops moved in.

According to Pascal Boniface, a senior analyst at France's Institute for International and Strategic Relations, Paris weighed the pros and cons of accepting Arafat.

"By receiving him, France strengthened its reputation to Israeli eyes as an objective Palestinian ally with a biased position in the conflict. But that didn't change very much because that poor image existed before," he said in an interview with the Liberation newspaper.

The daily added that, by employing "medical diplomacy" and letting Arafat die on French soil - rather than in his battered West Bank headquarters to which Israel had confined him for the past three years - Chirac also "pulled a thorn out of Ariel Sharon's foot", deflecting some Arab anger from the Israeli leader.

 

© AFP

Subject: French News

0 Comments To This Article