Syria's president Bashar Al-Assad met with his French counterpart, Jacques Chirac, Monday, June 25, as several thousand people protested his visit at a rally in a Parisian square dedicated to the memory of Jews slain in World War II.
The two leaders met for more than two hours at the presidential Elysee Palace following Assad's arrival, for talks that focused on the search for peace in the Middle East, Chirac's spokeswoman, Catherine Colonna, said.
At a dinner in his honor at the Elysee Palace later, Assad warned that the Middle East peace process was in danger of collapse because "the culture of peace is not yet ripe in Israel."
At the same dinner, Chirac called for "a just and global peace" in the Middle East, which he said "depends not only on the right of the Palestinians to have a land and a state, but also on the legitimate return of the Golan Heights to Syria."
Assad, 35, who took over on the death of his father Hafez Al-Assad a year ago, hopes to use his first state trip to Europe to project a modernizing image for Syria, for years typecast as an inward-looking and economically backward police state.
During their one-on-one talks, Chirac also expressed his "support" for "the reform efforts underway in Syria", while cultural and economic relations were also raised, Colonna said. Assad and his Western-educated wife Asma are staying at the residence used by state visitors, the Hotel Marigny, next to the Elysee Palace.
But despite the warm official welcome, Assad faced protests over his remarks attacking Jews, as well as tough questions over his capacity to engage his country in serious reform.
Some 6,000 people attended a demonstration in Paris organized by the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France in response to remarks by the Syrian leader, which have been interpreted as anti-Semitic.
Among them were several leading French politicians from both right and left and a small but vocal group of young militant Zionists. Some 3,000 demonstrated in the Mediterranean city of Marseille.
In May during a visit to Damascus by Pope John Paul II, Assad accused Israelis of wanting to "assassinate all principles of all religions in the same way as they betrayed Jesus and tried to kill the prophet Mohammed."
France's Jewish students' union welcomed the president to France by announcing a lawsuit accusing him of "inciting racial hatred". The protest was held in a Parisian square dedicated to Jews slain in World War II.
In further engagements over the next two days, Assad was to meet Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, a group of business leaders, and face questions from the foreign affairs committee of the National Assembly.
Assad wants French help in his efforts to liberalize the economy, as well as to achieve his diplomatic goals of a greater European role in the Middle East peace process, and ultimately the recovery of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
And for France ― ever eager to maintain its profile in a part of the world increasingly beholden to the United States ― the visit is a chance to reinforce links with a key regional player, and to try to understand better the young leader's likely course.
However behind the blandishments, some hardheaded assessments were likely to be made, as well as vocal criticisms of the Syrian government's human rights record.
In the year since he took office, Assad has disappointed many in France who hoped to see a more clearly reformist path being mapped out, while his verbal attacks on Israel have been vehemently condemned by Jewish and human rights groups.
"The least one can say, a year after the death of Hafez Al-Assad, ... is that we are still far from (any real evolution of Syrian politics or its regime)," said the left-wing daily Liberation Monday.
"In internal politics, Syria remains what Hafez el-Assad made it, a dictatorship founded on a single party backed up by an omnipresent secret police, charged with 'uprooting the weeds,'" it said.
Commentators in France described the events of the last year as a brief "spring" in which hopes of a freer political and economic climate were allowed to flourish in Syria, followed by ― since February ― the re-assertion of the numbing power of the country's vested interests.
Assad's interlocutors will be looking for assurances that the process of reform has not been abandoned, and for signs of any shift in the balance of power between those described as party traditionalists ― such as vice-president Abdelhalim Khaddam ― and modernizers such as Higher Education Minister Hassan Risheh.
Several politicians condemned the visit, with Noel Mamere of the Green party saying it "made France look like an accomplice with a violent and anti-democratic regime." ― (AFP, Paris)
© Agence France Presse 2001
© 2001 Mena Report (www.menareport.com)