French FM in Riyadh on Monday to Discuss Regional Issues

Paris – French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will conduct a two-day visit to Saudi Arabia on Monday to discuss strategic partnership and regional issues, French diplomatic sources told Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.

This will be Ayrault’s first visit to Riyadh since his appointment as foreign minister in February 2016.

Earlier this week, the French official met with his Saudi counterpart Adel Al-Jubeir in Paris, on the sidelines of the Middle East Peace Conference, which was held under the auspices of the French government.

French sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that Paris had many issues to discuss with Riyadh, including preparations for the meeting of the French-Saudi Joint Commission, which will be held in the summer, and which aims at promoting economic, investment and commercial relations within the framework of the Kingdom’s Vision 2030.

On a different note, the sources said that Ayrault would also discuss with Saudi officials the situation in the region, including the war in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, as well as means to fight terrorism and protect the security of the Gulf region.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister responded to statements by some French presidential candidates that Riyadh funds Islamist extremism in France and that bilateral ties between the two allies should be reviewed.

In a press briefing in Paris attended by Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, Jubeir said: “I can’t comment on what’s said during an election campaign, but I know there is a misperception of Saudi Arabia.”

“People say Saudi Arabia is extremism. Saudi Arabia is intolerance. Saudi Arabia is funding radical institutions and I always say it’s not true”, he stated.

“When people say the Saudis are funding this, I say show me. Nobody has anything to show, but the image has stuck and becomes a reality,” Jubeir added.

Paris Conference Calls on Israel to End its Occupation


Paris – An international conference was concluded Sunday in the French capital, with more than 70 countries and organizations calling on Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian territories and supporting the two-state solution as the only means to achieve sustainable peace in the Middle East.

In a final statement issued at the end of the conference, participants called on Israel to withdraw to its 1967 borders, as required by United Nations resolutions, and for both parties to “abstain from unilateral actions” that could threaten future negotiations.

However, neither Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas nor Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the meeting.

Netanyahu described the conference as “a last gasp” from the past and said it was unhelpful to the peace process.

“The conference taking place in Paris is an idle conference. It was coordinated between the French and the Palestinians. Its purpose is to enforce on Israel conditions that are not in line with our national needs. Of course it creates a bigger gap regarding peace because it hardens the Palestinians’ stance as well as putting us further away from direct negotiations without any preconditions,” Netanyahu said.

Abbas, who was expected to arrive in Paris on Saturday following an official visit to Rome, was asked by French authorities to delay his visit for two weeks, according to Palestinian sources.

Addressing the gathering, French President François Hollande said: “Our common aim, which is a noble aim, is that of a fair and lasting peace between the two countries. I am conscious of the reservations and doubts about this conference … but it is urgent to act.”

“The two-state solution is threatened and there is a need to preserve it. … Now is not the moment to stop. The solution of two states is the only way forward and the only solution that will answer both sides’ aspirations and legitimate rights”, he added.

For his part, French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said that participants have expressed the need to preserve two states, “which is the only solution possible and which is threatened today.”

“If we don’t do anything, we risk letting the situation descend into a conflict; a conflict written in advance,” Ayrault said.

Commenting on a statement by U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, in which he pledged to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Ayrault said such move would be a “provocation”, warning about “extremely serious consequences.”

“When you are president of the United States, you cannot take such a clear-cut, unilateral position on this issue. You have to try to create the conditions for peace,” he said.

French Officials: Middle East Peace Conference in Paris is Directed at Trump

Paris –U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s team has made a request to cancel the Middle East Peace Conference to be held in Paris, but was rejected by France, official French sources said.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives in Paris on Sunday to participate in the conference along with 70 representatives of different countries and international and regional organizations. The conference is aimed at reviving peace talks between Palestinians and Israelis.

The sources also informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Paris had asked Kerry to take advantage of the remaining days of Obama’s presidency and call for a U.N. Resolution that determines a two-state solution. Kerry rejected the proposal, saying he can’t commit to such a thing days before he leaves office.

Kerry added that he had already divulged his thoughts on the issue during his last speech following the adoption of Resolution 2334 on December 23.

Therefore, the French idea of the conference resulting with a new resolution has been ended and abandoned. Also, the intentions of having the quadruple committee adopt Paris’ recommendations are discarded.

Considering these facts, the Paris meeting will conclude with a statement.

The meeting will be launched Sunday morning by French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, whereas the French President will deliver a speech later that afternoon.

While Kerry’s attendance is definite, his Russian and British counterparts Sergei Lavrov and Borris Johnson haven’t confirmed yet. U.N.’s new Sec-Gen Antonio Guterres’ presence at the conference hasn’t been established either.

High Representative of the European Union Federica Mogherini, Arab League Sec-Gen Ahmed Abul Gheit, and all of Saudi, Jordan, Emirati and Egyptian foreign ministers will attend, while Lebanese Foreign Minister Jebran Bassil won’t.

Neither Israel nor the Palestinian leadership will attend the talks. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected the conference proposal.

When speaking of the conference, informed French sources used the half full-half empty glass metaphor. A pessimist would consider the glass half empty, meaning there is no benefit for the conference and whatever will be announced won’t change a thing. While an optimist will say that it is important to realize that the struggle would only end through the formation of two independent states.

Above all, the sources regard the outcomes of the conference as a message to Trump saying that he can’t act as he pleases in this hot topic, and shall he want to contribute positively to it, the roadmap is already set.

Yet, the desire to deliver such messages to the new president compelled diplomats, who met in Paris last Monday, to resort to a moderate language in the final draft of the statement in order to avoid angering the president-elect, which could result in him tweeting something that could obliterate the outcomes of this conference.

The statement refrained from going into the details and mainly discussed general concepts.

The French sources also said they already know how Israel would react and how it would consider the outcomes of this conference against Israeli interests, and it encourages Palestinians to reject direct negotiations.

Tel Aviv is optimistic with Trump coming to office especially that he promised to transfer the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and vote against U.N resolutions that could harm Israel’s plan, according to the same sources.

One last thing, Paris conference was considering the establishment of a committee to follow up with the expected resolutions, but that was dismissed.

It was replaced with a French commitment to overlook the progress achieved by the attendees concerning the formation of two states.

In any case, France is looking forward to presidential elections that could lead to changes in the French policies concerning this issue.

French Delegation’s Visit to Syria Draws Criticism

French deputies Thierry Mariani and Nicolas Dhuicq, in Aleppo January 06 2017. ©AFP

Paris – A visit by three French lawmakers to Syria and Lebanon taking place from January 5-10 has raised several questions in Paris. the lawmakers planned meet with head of Syrian regime Bashar Assad and Foreign Minister Walid Moualem in Syria, in addition to Lebanon’s recently elected President Michel Aoun in Beirut.

Thierry Mariani, who is a member of The Republicans party, his fellow LR member Nicolas Dhuicq and a former member of the Democratic Movement party and presidential candidate, Jean Lassalle, arrived in Damascus on Thursday to visit Syrian Christians in Aleppo.

Their humanitarian visit was organized without coordination between foreign ministries.

The visit was extremely condemned for two reasons. First of all, the statements delivered by the delegation, especially Mariani, were contradictory with that French diplomacy had been taking for over six years. The second reason was that many considered it granted the Syrian regime a political platform to, not only to justify what it has been doing in Syria, but also allowed it to intervene in the French domestic political affairs and the presidential campaign elections.

Assad expressed his support for conservative French presidential candidate François Fillon and welcomed his policies on terrorism, saying his “priority to defy the terrorists and not meddling in the affairs of other countries are welcome.”

Over the last 48 hours, French media outlets were raving with Assad’s statements, and not just because of his announcement that he’d prefer Fillon as a president. Assad said his government was ready to negotiate on “everything” during the upcoming Astana talks on January 23.

When asked if the government was ready to discuss his position as president, Assad replied: “Yes but my position is linked to the constitution”.

“If they want to discuss this point they must discuss the constitution,” he added.

Assad was also asked about the heavy bombing raids that ravaged the city and claimed large numbers of civilian lives, to which he replied: “Every war is bad.”

“But you have to liberate, and this is the price sometimes,” he added, “In the end, the people are liberated from the terrorists.”

In reality, Thierry Mariani’s visit harmed the French diplomacy. Previously, Mariani had also put the French government in a hot spot when he visited the Peninsula of Crimea with nine other MPs. He declared: “The referendum on Crimea’s accession to Russia reflected the will of the people.”

He also said that the liberation of Aleppo was made possible thanks to the steadfastness of Syrians and the sacrifices made by the Syria Arab Army, and that it forms a step towards the big victory and the defeat of terrorism all over Syrian territory.

Syrian News Agency Network (SANA) reported Nicolas Dhuicq stating that Syria is an example for the whole world in protecting women’s rights and coexistence among all components.

While Jean Lassalle, who is a presidential candidate, said that visiting Syria comes within the framework of the foreign policy if he becomes president.

Among all statements which condemned the visit, Benoit Hamon said that it is surprising when a man who deliberately kills and uses chemical weapon on his people and targeted hospitals, backed by Russia, doesn’t hesitate to give lessons.

Hamon couldn’t believe that some people in France can find excuses for this man.

Socialist presidential candidate Arnaud Montebourg condemned Assad’s interference in the French domestic affairs saying that French people should choose their own president.

Criticism against what the delegation’s visit to Syria didn’t only come from the leftists. Francois Fillon’s spokesperson said that the delegation’s visit was a mistake and they do not represent the candidate or Republican Party.

The Ankara-Tehran Tug of War in Syria, Russia’s Role as Referee


European diplomats have taken up great interest in the intricate proxy war taking place in Syria, pitting both Ankara and Tehran on opposite ends of the bid for a solution ending the ongoing civil war. Moscow, on the other hand, has taken up a chief role in balancing a tripartite consensus.

Russian mediation managed an Iran-Turkey agreement, subsequently developing a ceasefire that would relaunch the Syria peace talks in Astana, Kazakhstan.

The issue surfacing with the agreement, is that Iran was in a sense excluded from taking part in the ceasefire brokerage, making it seem very shaky. Although, Iran, like Moscow – supports Bashar al-Assad’s regime – has stood aside from the truce leaving it very possible that proxies operating under its command to their own unilateral battlefield decisions away from the armistice.

More so, the Assad-led regime itself stands out on the ceasefire made as a go-between party, able to team up with loose Iran proxies to push for more territorial gains, hindering chances of a solution.

For that reason, perhaps, it was that Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu called on Iran to rein in its Shi’ite-backed militias and the Syrian regime to stop violating the ceasefire.

Mevlut Cavusoglu warned it was putting planned peace talks in peril.

Western diplomats therefore perceive that the Russian-Turkish agreement was to weigh in Turkey’s influence on the Syrian arena, propping up its position for future negotiations.

Russia bringing back Turkey into core influence can be a rendition to previous statements it made to Gulf officials on its Syria intervention being a preemptive move to curb Iran expansionist ambitions.

Since the wake of the Syrian Civil War in 2011, both Turkey and Iran placed their bets on two opposite brawling sides of the conflict, providing both support and assistance to their respectively backed parties.

Despite Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan being forced to shift positions on Syria, following last summer’s coup that almost toppled his authority and brought him closer to Moscow, Turkish and Iranian standing on the Syria cause remain adrift.

Western sources attribute Tehran’s great determination to hinder the ceasefire to its need to anchor its role as an influential party to the conflict, translating its non-approval to the impossibility of peace in Syria.

Not to mention that Tehran wants to be an active partner that is able to influence the political process in Syria, sources added.

France’s First-time Labelling of Goods Made in Israeli Settlements


Paris- France became the very first European Union member state to go into implementation of a 14 month-old union directive to label Israel products coming from settlements for consumer awareness.

France’s measure remains vague as to whether it was coincidental or intentional prompted by Israeli policies inhibiting the Palestinian – Israeli peace process and solution, bringing it to an utter impasse.

The first French supermarket has labeled Israeli products as “Made in Israeli Settlements.” This comes after the French Government instituted a policy of labeling Israeli produce grown in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights as “settlement products.”

Israel’s refusal to participate in the international conference, which will be hosted in Paris mid-January, greatly sized sown the chances of a comprehensive solution for peace, or to even recognize the international efforts brought in – on the matter.

Parisian diplomats told Asharq Al-Awsat that the labeling of Israeli products is brought about by the United Nations Security Council resolution 2334 issued on Dec.23, 2016 condemning Israeli settlement expansion.

France hopes that its decision to push forward with labeling to encourage the other 27 EU member states to follow through with their decision – 14 months ago – to attempt pressuring Israel through the humble initiative that will have no grand-scale effect over EU-Israeli economic and scientific cooperation.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry sent a harsh response to the event, saying they “condemn the French government’s decision to implement the EU Commission guidelines regarding marking Israeli products originating from beyond the 1967 lines”.

For years now demands on distinguishing Israeli goods made in West Bank settlements have been made to diminish chances of exploiting privileges of a customs agreement signed between the EU and Israel 22 years ago.

The “Burkini” Debate in France

Paris- France’s last summer was different after it witnessed many hot political and social incidents. Following the Nice attack, celebrations of the National Day turned into a disaster. Again, the term of “Islamic terrorism” and differences between this religion and the West’s freedom and democracy made headlines.

Amid these new circumstances, a new trend emerged in France: the “Burkini”, which is a light swimming outfit for women. Critics rushed to describe it as “the Islamic swimwear” because it covers the whole body except for the face.

From Australia to France
In fact, the Burkini is not a French-based idea; a Lebanese migrant in Australia created it 12 years ago, seeking to provide Muslim women with a suitable outfit that allows them to swim and to commit to their Islamic culture and restrictions at the same time.

Burkini appeared in France for the first time in 2009; yet, debates concerning this outfit started in 2011, ascended in Germany and Belgium in 2014-2015, and reached its peak in France last year; it made headlines for months and become a top priority in the French community.

Burkini-wearing women didn’t invade the French beaches or kick out the beautiful French women wearing bikinis. Yet, this new swimwear provoked a violent reaction because it appeared in a wrong timing. The French right-wing considered it an Islamic invasion that came to complete the efforts of veil; others saw it a rejection for the French style and values along with many people considering it a humiliation for women who have to hide their bodies while men wander half naked on beaches.

Municipal decisions
To confront this bizarre phenomenon, many administrative decisions came to ban any religious outfit on beaches. Some municipalities said the ban aims at securing the hygiene or maintaining security in the French environment, which has been prone to terrorist attacks. Objections widened and many politicians like former President Nicolas Sarkozy interfered to support the municipal decisions.

These decisions turned into actions and municipal police began demanding from women who wear Burkinis to remove their outfits or leave the beach. In a controversial incident, four security members surrounded a woman wearing Burkini like she was a criminal or a terrorist; this incident provoked many people in the country and around the world, prompting a French court to suspend the Burkini ban.

I is worth noting that the Burkuni issue grew for two reasons: terrorism and the upcoming French elections, which compelled many politicians to use this polemic subject as an electoral promotion to support their campaigns and secure more public support.

Diplomats Relay France’s Decision to Reschedule Peace International Conference


Paris- France’s ministry for foreign affairs decided to postpone the international conference for restoring peace to the Middle East that was meant to take place on the December 21, diplomatic source told Asharq Al-Awsat.

French President Francois is reportedly planning to hold a meeting of foreign ministers from nearly two dozen countries in Paris Dec. 21, in an effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. France held a similar conference in June; Israeli and Palestinian representatives were not invited to that gathering.

Reasons given for France’s delay were exclusive to a busy agenda withholding participating ministers from attending, added to prior holiday engagements.

Arguably, the same sources noted that a concealed reason stands behind rescheduling the conference. Mixed with United State idleness, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had relayed his frank and far from diplomatic refusal to attend the conference to Hollande.

Netanyahu also said that his government is prepared to go into direct negotiations with President of the State of Palestine Mahmoud Abbas if the international conference was to be cancelled.

“Netanyahu told Hollande if there were not an international conference in Paris, the prime minister would meet with Abbas for direct talks without preconditions….Israel will not take part in the international conference, which won’t contribute to bringing peace,” a Wednesday statement by the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office said.

With that, Netanyahu has directed a straight blow to the conference finishing off France’s desire to invite about fifty regional and international foreign minister, and re-open the file on the Palestinian – Israeli conflict, giving a front slot on the international agenda.

The conference was also to allow for the two-state solution sought by Israel, to remain a viable option.

Another factor that prompted suspending the conference, is the notable indifference projected by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who spent Friday and Saturday in Paris. Kerry was participating at the meeting of states supporting the Syrian opposition.

The U.S. Secretary advised France to walk away from the initiative, at least for the time being, especially that the U.S. Obama administration is coming to an end and that the new administration is still undergoing transition of power.

France has decided to postpone its international peace conference aimed at resuming talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA). The PA envoy to France said that France informed the Palestinians that the peace conference has been postponed until January 2017.

The PA envoy countered the heresy down politics ally, saying that the conference was postponed since there was not sufficient time to prepare in such a way that ensures its success, and that the postponement was unrelated to Israel’s refusal to participate.

French Sources: ‘Action Group Meeting in Paris Today Faces Several Challenges’

French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault (L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry after the Paris talks on Syria.

Paris-Paris announced on Friday it will host the countries backing Syria’s moderate opposition forces.

French Foreign Affairs Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault is set to host the meeting that will include his counterparts from the United States, John Kerry; Germany, Frank-Walter Steinmeier; United Kingdom, Boris Johnson; and Qatar, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim al-Thani.

The head of Turkish diplomacy, Mevlüt Cavusoglu, and of the European Union’s Federica Mogherini _ along with representatives of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Italy and Jordan _ are also expected to attend, according to the schedule published on Friday by the French government.

“The latest events compound the urgency of mobilizing the international community,” said a spokesperson for the French foreign ministry.

France decided to gather the meeting after Russia vetoed last week a draft resolution that sought to establish a cease-fire in Aleppo that would have provided urgent humanitarian aid to civilians in besieged areas.

The participants will discuss the tragic humanitarian situation in Aleppo and the response that the international community must urgently adopt, plus the strategy they need to apply to achieve a stabilization of the liberated territories once ISIS is expelled.

The ministry pointed out that, one year after the launch of the Vienna (Peace) Process, it is currently dead in its tracks, and therefore “it is imperative to uphold the collective efforts to find a political solution.”

The General Coordinator of the Syrian Negotiating Committee (HNC), Riyad Farid Hijab, and the president of the City Council of Aleppo (East), Brita Hagi Hasan, will both be present during part of the session.

“It is time the international community wakes up because a tragedy is happening right in front of our eyes,” said Ayrault on Nov. 30, when he announced the date this meeting would take place.

Saturday’s diplomatic event coincides with another summit that will take place in Geneva, Switzerland, between U.S. and Russian diplomats and military officers to specify the terms of the withdrawal of armed groups from eastern Aleppo and the evacuation of civilians.

Earlier this week, six western countries including the United States called for an immediate ceasefire in the face of the humanitarian catastrophe in Aleppo, urging Russia and Iran to use their influence on the Syrian regime to secure a truce.

According to French sources, Ministers meeting in Paris should discuss five challenges the opposition is facing in Syria.

The first challenge lies in the humanitarian and field crises faced in Aleppo.

The foreign ministers meeting in Paris seek to revive pressure on Moscow and Tehran in all fields, including the Security Council, the General Assembly (truce and humanitarian aids) and all the possible international and European platforms.

Hollande… The First French President Not Seeking Reelection

Paris- Francois Hollande’s presidential executive action, for a long time has failed to garner popularity support in France. His policymaking and popularity never matched that of what is expected of a president over the last four years.

As presidential elections for France’s fifth republic draw near, and campaign trails roam public streets, polls turnout indicate that Hollande will likely be reduced to the low ranks after only securing an insignificant five percent of popular vote. Hollande makes the first president to register such unpopularity.

After Hollande announced exiting elections, forecasts showed that at least 82 percent of French people applauded his choice for not seeking another presidency.

Both leftists and right wingers have washed clean their support for Hollande. As his term draws to an end, Hollande continues to hope for a miraculous upturn of events after which support is restored so is his position at the Élysée presidential palace.

Primaries in January will select the socialist, Hollande’s party, candidate. But whoever it is, pollsters predict he or she won’t make it through to the decisive second round run-off where the center-right’s candidate Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front are expected to go head to head.

Hollande’s decision not to run for a second term may not change the outcome of French elections, analysts say, but it reflects a broader populist backlash.

Hollande headed to Abu Dhabi on Friday, hours after his announcement that he would not seek another term. The Socialist leader becomes the first president in modern French history not to run for re-election, but he also faces record unpopularity.

“In the months to come, my only duty will be to continue to lead my country,” Hollande said in a hastily scheduled televised address Thursday night, in which he did not endorse a leftist successor.

Hollande also reiterated the efforts France has led under his administration on counterterrorism and preserving civilian security.

Many leftists argue that Hollande had betrayed the public trust given to him – he has not fallen through with his promises on a reformist economic program. Noting that Hollande was elected on the basis of his ability to deliver a progressive – leftist program.

Unemployment did not fall as promised, and purchasing power for lower and middle class spheres remained low — Hollande’s 2014 Liberal policy favored employers rather than employees, offsetting taxes for companies while increasing taxes for the middle class.