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France watches Sarkozy's Middle East diplomacy closely

by Aidan O'Donnell

Article published on the 2009-01-04 Latest update 2009-01-05 11:27 TU

(Photo: Reuters)

(Photo: Reuters)

Thousands turned out for protests this weekend as French President Nicolas Sarkozy prepared for a tour of the Middle East on Monday and Tuesday. French officials have said Israel’s launching a ground offensive in Gaza will not change Sarkozy's programme. Israel's move into Gaza was described Saturday by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as a "dangerous military escalation" which would "complicate efforts by the international community".

Police say some 4,000 people gathered Sunday close to the Israeli embassy in Paris.

Richard Prasquier, President of the CRIF (Conseil Representatif des Institutions Juives de France) - the representative political body of the Jewish community in France – told RFI that the demonstration aimed "to support Israel and the victims of the Hamas, those victims that were hit by the Hamas for years".

Demonstrators near the Israeli embassy in Paris on Sunday(Photo: Reuters)

Demonstrators near the Israeli embassy in Paris on Sunday
(Photo: Reuters)

"Israel is fighting for the liberty and survival of its people. There is no wish to destroy another population,” said Rabbi Gilles Bernheim. He appealed for relations "of quality and confidence" between the Jewish and Muslim communities in France.

Sunday's demonstration followed a much larger demonstration denouncing Israeli attacks on Gaza Saturday, where police said at least 21,000 people left Paris' Place de la République towards the Israeli embassy.

Some chanted "Israel Assassin" and "We are all Palestinians", and at least three Israeli flags were set alight before the cortege departed. One woman carried a long series of photos of dead and injured on her back, which she said were sent from Gaza over the internet.

"Photos of children, cut-up, dead - of men, of women - who've been killed by Israeli bombs and airforce, in the last three or four days," she said.

Asked whether she thought the visit of the French President to the region would change anything, she replied "not really, not a lot. He's complicit with the Israeli state".

Another demonstrator however hoped that the protest would "put a little pressure on the French President" when he visits Middle East leaders.

Several banners made direct appeals to members of the French government, including Sarkozy and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. One sign asked Junior Minister for Human Rights, Rama Yade, "Where are the human rights for Palestinians?"

Dominique Moïsi, a Middle East specialist and currently a visiting professor at Harvard University, says Sarkozy cannot help but take the weekend's protests on board.

"I think he cannot not notice that there is a sizeable portion of the French population beyond those that demonstrated yesterday [Saturday] that are clearly against the Israeli offensive in Gaza," said Moïsi.

Outside of Paris, thousands gathered in Nantes, Bordeaux, Marseilles and Lyon.  

"He is the President of all French, of all minorities, he has to integrate that," he added.

Sarkozy will make five stops on his two-day tour. Moïsi says the stop in Damascus, Syria, is likely to be the most important.

“The most original part of the meeting… will be the confirmation of the reopening of diplomatic relations between France and Syria,” he said. “This is really what he can achieve."

"In Ramalah it will be difficult; in Jerusalem everything has been said; in Cairo the Egyptians are not playing the role the international community would wish them to play; and in Lebanon it might be a difficult trip," he continued.

Sarkozy's visit to the Middle East, he said, "runs the risk of being an embarrassing trip where France will be perceived as nearly an adversary by the Arab party and not such a good friend by the Israeli party after France has announced its uneasiness with the invasion by ground forces of Gaza by the Israeli army".