France-Lebanon ties in focus as Sleiman heads for Paris
Lebanese President Michel Sleiman visits France on Monday as his country prepares to open its first ever embassy in former powerbroker Syria and gears for legislative elections in June.BEIRUT - A Lebanese government official told AFP that Sleiman's three-day state visit will focus on French military and economic assistance to Lebanon as well as the thaw in diplomatic ties with Damascus which has been spurred by France.
Sleiman will discuss with French President Nicolas Sarkozy relations between Lebanon and Syria "from the perspective of the French attention given to these ties," the Lebanese official said.
Lebanon and Syria announced the establishment of diplomatic relations in October, three months after a meeting between Sleiman and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hosted by Sarkozy in Paris.
The announcement was a major step towards normalisation of ties between the two neighbours since their independence from France more than 60 years ago, and seen by Paris as a step towards the stabilisation of the region.
It came three years after Syria withdrew its troops from Lebanon in April 2005, ending three decades of military domination over its tiny neighbour, under pressure after the killing of ex-premier Rafiq Hariri.
Hariri's February 2005 assassination in a massive Beirut beachfront bombing was widely blamed on Syria but Damascus has denied any involvement.
Syria in December opened an embassy in Beirut, although it has not named an envoy, while Lebanon is due to open an embassy in Damascus to be headed by career diplomat Michel el-Khoury.
"The embassy will open its doors next week and the Lebanese flag will be raised over the building," a Lebanese foreign ministry official, requesting anonymity, told AFP on Friday.
French foreign ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier said that France aims to show during the visit its full support for Sleiman and for Lebanon, as the country prepares to hold legislative elections.
"The 7 June elections must be held in a climate of stability, respect democratic norms and consolidate unity, independence and the sovereignty of Lebanon to which France is attached," Chevallier said.
The vote will be the first since the Western-backed parliamentary majority and the Syria- and Iran-backed opposition reached a deal in May 2008, ending a crisis that had brought Lebanon to the brink of civil war.
Lebanon's politicians have held five round of "national dialogue" talks since the Qatari-brokered deal and pledged at the last encounter on 2 March to refrain from violence in the run-up to the election.
Earlier this year Sarkozy called for a "transparent and democratic" vote in Lebanon and said in a newspaper interview that Paris was prepared to "help ensure the good conduct of the election."
In February, France and Italy said they would be willing to monitor the vote after parliament majority leader Saad Hariri called for election observers during talks with French officials in Paris.
The vote could well see the Syrian-backed Hezbollah and its allies win a majority of seats in parliament, which is now controlled by a majority backed by the West and such Arab nations as oil kingpin Saudi Arabia.
Sarkozy will host Sleiman to a dinner banquet on Monday ahead of his talks with Prime Minister Francois Fillion on Tuesday and a meeting Wednesday with Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner.
France expects the visit to bolster trade ties but officials do not expect any major deals to be signed between the two countries.
Rita Daou / AFP / Expatica