According to the former Israeli ambassador, Chirac refused to listen and replied, “Hezbollah is a Lebanese political party. It is a part of the social and cultural fabric of the country, and part of its sectarian balance.” Ambassador Barnavi responded, “Why do you label Hamas a terrorist organization and not its Lebanese counterpart?”
According to Barnavi, the French outlook has not changed despite a long series of terrorist attacks attributed to Hezbollah in Argentina, India, Thailand, Georgia, Kenya, and Cyprus. There was also the recent attack on Israeli tourists at the airport in Burgas, Bulgaria which killed six people: five Israelis and a Bulgarian driver, in addition to leaving dozens of others wounded. On 5 February last year, Bulgarian Interior Minister Tsvetan Tsvetanov officially announced that Hezbollah was responsible for the suicide operation and that the two culprits were members of group carrying Canadian and Australian passports.
Hezbollah denounces the allegations, and claimed that it was part of a “smear campaign” by Israel and the United States, and unequivocally denied any involvement in the Burgas bombing.
Seven months after the attack in Burgas, and despite official Bulgarian accusations and Israeli and American pressure on the EU to add Hezbollah to the EU’s terror list, the 27 European countries, led primarily by Italy and France, refused to submit to these pressures. US pressure on the European Union take many forms. Vice President Joe Biden said in a recent speech to AIPAC, the predominant American-Israeli lobbying organization in the US, that Hezbollah, “Presents itself as a political and social movement while it conspires against innocent people from Eastern Europe to East Africa, from South-East Asia to South America…We know what Israel has known: Hezbollah is a terrorist organization, period. We urge each country that deals with Hezbollah to approach it from this standpoint and label it a terrorist organization.”
Prior to Biden’s speech, National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon wrote an article in the New York Times in which he urged Europeans to change its approach to Hezbollah, saying that it is Europe’s duty, “…to act collectively and respond resolutely to this attack within its borders by adding Hezbollah to the European Union’s terrorist list… Europe can no longer ignore the threat that this group poses to the Continent and to the world…it is an illusion to speak of Hezbollah as a responsible political actor.”
Despite this pressure, Paris has refused to alter its position, evidenced by France’s refusal to place Hezbollah on the European terror list during official EU meetings.
A question then arises: What are the factors underlying France’s intransigence? Are they the same reasons former president Chirac spoke of? Or are there other regional and international dimensions related to French interests in Lebanon which determine the French approach to Hezbollah?
In recent years, only two French officials have ever deviated from the traditional line and used the term ‘terrorist’ to describe Hezbollah and its activities.
During a visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority territories in February 2000, Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin, who served as Prime Minister from 1997 to 2002, said during a speech at Birzeit University that “France condemns attacks by Hezbollah and all terrorist attacks, especially those that target Israeli soldiers and civilians.” Upon leaving the university, dozens of Palestinians hurled rocks at Jospin’s entourage and the then prime minister was struck in the head.
His comments sparked a mini-crisis of sorts between him and President Jacques Chirac. The president’s office issued a statement in which it said that Jospin’s statements “run counter to French diplomatic neutrality and undermine the credibility of our foreign policy.” With this, Paris returned to its typical stance, given that in the French political system the office of the president holds precedence over the prime minister in matters of foreign and defense policy. Some hold that Jospin’s comments contributed to his loss of the presidential elections to Jacques Chirac in 2002.
The second figure willing to link Hezbollah to terrorism was former President Nicolas Sarkozy, known for his strong ties to Israel and specifically to Benjamin Netanyahu. During Israel’s war on Lebanon in 2006, Sarkozy, then serving as interior minister, did not hesitate while talking about Hezbollah to say that “it risks operating like a terrorist organization operates.” After being elected president in 2007, Mr. Sarkozy made an official visit to Israel and called on Hezbollah to “abandon terrorist activities.”
Despite these statements, French policy has not altered. France continues to communicate with Hezbollah and in 2008, the French foreign ministry invited it to participate in the Lebanese dialogue conference in Saint-Cloud in addition to a number of other Lebanese political parties. Hezbollah MPs and ministers frequently make trips to Paris, and the French Embassy in Beirut continues to host Hezbollah representatives for discussions, especially on the UN’s peacekeeping force in Lebanon, in which France plays a leading role.
France’s policy towards Lebanon has been very consistent and is rooted in the country’s values. Regardless of the government’s leftist or rightist composition, its leaders voice their unwavering support for upholding sovereignty, political independence, territorial integrity, constitutional and democratic institutions, and the state’s exclusive right to coercive force. Ever since the League of Nations granted France a mandate over Lebanon after World War I, it has played an important role in shaping Lebanon’s politics, and throughout this process Paris has been unerring in its support for the Lebanese people to come to a consensus so that its diverse components may coexist peacefully in one state. Paris maintains that coexistence is necessary for Lebanon’s security and political stability.
In regards to the Syrian issue, France supports the policy of “self-distancing” as spelled out in the Baabda Declaration which Lebanon has officially adopted. Since the beginning of the Syrian crisis, French officials have repeatedly stated that Paris’s greatest concern is that the chaos spills over into Lebanon, saying that they consider it to be the most vulnerable of all of Syria’s neighboring countries.
On the Lebanese–Israeli front, Paris encourages both sides to implement UN Resolution 1701, which ended the Israeli war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006. French sources point to the continued calmness on the Israeli-Lebanese border as the best evidence of the efficacy of the aforementioned resolution, despite repeated Israeli flybys over Lebanese territory, the impasse of the village of Ghajar, and the protracted dispute over the identity of the Shebaa Farms. Since the end of the conflict, relations between UNIFIL, specifically the French forces within it which currently stand at 850 men, and the ‘republic’ of Hezbollah in the south have not been free of tension.
Last week the French foreign ministry said that Paris “continues to play its role within the framework of international forces in southern Lebanon (UNIFIL) in view of the pivotal part they play in maintaining the stability of southern Lebanon . . . with this role becoming all the more crucial given the growing tension in the region.”
All of these official stances work towards maintaining Lebanon’s stability and its cultural, ethnic, and religious diversity. Thus France’s approach to Hezbollah is geared so that in time it can realize the overarching goal of having Hezbollah return to being a civilian party void of a military wing.
If these are the bases for the France’s position, then how do its politicians go about maintaining it?
Asharq Al-Awsat posed this question to Denis Bauchard, a former diplomat and adviser to the French Institute for International Relations, and French MP Gérard Bapt, who headed the former French-Lebanese friendship group in Parliament.
Denis Bauchard said that Paris views Hezbollah as a “political party with representatives in parliament and ministers in the government, and thus it enjoys the legitimacy that can only be derived from the electoral process. Through our embassy in Beirut, we have established good bilateral relations with its ministers and its other party members at all levels. We seek to maintain good and balanced relations with all Lebanese communities, including the Shiites.”
He said that the Shiite community is an important one and impossible to overlook. Thus France views the Shiite community as a “partner” with whom it interacts mainly through the Lebanese Parliament Speaker, Nabih Berri, and Hezbollah, Bauchard said.
However, Bauchard mentioned other factors that influence the Paris-Hezbollah dynamic. First among them is the presence of UNIFIL forces in southern Lebanon which include French personnel in its ranks. Bauchard described this relationship in the south as “highly sensitive” and attributes its delicacy to the Syrian situation and the potential it has to spill over into Lebanon. Nonetheless, Bauchard says that “The situation has become more sensitive than it was previously . . . however there is a tacit agreement between UNIFIL and Hezbollah to avoid a dangerous escalation that neither side wants.”
Bauchard pointed to French political sources which had said that if France were to place Hezbollah on the terror list “it would likely have ramifications that would increase the tension in the UNIFIL–Hezbollah relationship.” Tensions between Paris and Hezbollah factor arise from that fact that Paris has taken a strong position in opposition to the Syrian regime, which enjoys the unconditional support of Hezbollah. The French sources added that, “What is true of the Syrian file is also true of the Iranian nuclear file,” in that Paris is not hesitant to take a firm stance that contradicts the ideology and commitments of Hezbollah.
The Associated Press quoted French researcher Joseph Bahout, a professor at the Institute of Political Science in Paris, when he said that bowing to the demands of Israel and Washington “would put UNIFIL in an untenable situation,” in southern Lebanon. He said that the acceptance of the presence of international forces in this region “is in large part due to the good relations that still exist between the West, specifically France, and Hezbollah.”
For his part, MP Gérard Bapt said that, “It is in Hezbollah’s interest to maintain relative peace in southern Lebanon and to not cause problems.” The French MP told Asharq Al-Awsat that threats to UNIFIL “could likely come from the Salafists more than from Hezbollah.” Bapt called upon his country to take these risks into account not only in regards to UNIFIL, but on a larger scale in terms of French support for the Syrian opposition and its Salafist currents, which could have other impacts on Lebanon and the region. Bapt argued that the time has come for the French government to reassess its position, especially as the Americans and Russians “are looking for a way out that prevents Syria from plunging into total chaos like in Libya or Afghanistan.”
Bapt looks at France’s relationship with Hezbollah within the context of wider Lebanese-French relations, which he feels is “a departure from the previous policy that focused mostly on the Maronite-French relationship.” In his view, the relationship between France and Hezbollah is, “vital given the facts on the ground . . . It can be a stabilizing force on Lebanon’s domestic scene.”
In terms of triangular French-Iranian-Hezbollah relations, Bapt believes that the resumption of talks on the Iranian nuclear issue between Tehran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council (plus Germany) will reflect positively on this relationship if it leads to an understanding between the two sides.
The subject of Hezbollah remains high on the European agenda. French sources say that “There are centrist solutions available” in regards to reconciling opposing views in the 27 nation bloc. For example, they could single out Hezbollah’s military wing or blacklist the names of those involved in the Burgas attack, as recently happened with Imad Mughniyah, the military commander Hezbollah. His name remained on the list until he was killed in a car bombing in Damascus in 2008.