The Magazine

The French Connection

Why they're being so helpful in Lebanon.

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By OLIVIER GUITTA
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In addition to kidnappings, Iran, working through Hezbollah, orchestrated a terror campaign in the streets of France between December 1985 and September 1986 that killed 13 and injured hundreds. Alain Marsaud, head of the French counterterrorism unit, summed up the purpose of the campaign this way: "Iran, the sponsor of the attacks, used a Lebanon-based Hezbollah network plus a Maghrebi logistics cell to convince France to change its foreign policy."

In fact, the Tunisian mastermind of the 1986 attacks, Fouad Ali Saleh, was close to many of Hezbollah's top leaders. He had spent three years studying in Qom, Iran, under Ayatollah Khomeini. Upon his arrest, Saleh stated: "Islam's stronghold is Iran. Your country, helping Iraq fight Iran, is an enemy. . . . Our main goal is to bring France back to reason by violent actions."

The DST, the French equivalent of the FBI, noted in its final report to Prime Minister Chirac: "Nothing could have been decided without the blessing of either Iranian parliament president Rafsanjani or Ayatollah Montazeri."

The 1990s were comparatively uneventful, but in February 2000, left-wing prime minister Lionel Jospin described Hezbollah as a "terrorist" group during a press conference in Israel. The French foreign minister, Hubert Védrine, traveling with Jospin, whispered to him: "You went a little too far there!" Whereupon President Chirac angrily reminded Jospin that the president shapes France's foreign policy, not the prime minister. Obviously, Chirac, remembering the bombings and kidnappings of the 1980s, did not want to provoke Hezbollah. Which is why, despite Hezbollah's blood-soaked pedigree, Chirac invited Hassan Nasrallah, the group's secretary general, to attend the Francophone Summit in Beirut in October 2002.

But on December 17, 2003, Chirac's semi-good relationship with Hezbollah came crashing down. By supporting the ban on the hijab--the headscarf worn by some Muslim women--in France's public schools, Chirac incurred the wrath of Sheikh Fadlallah. In a letter to Chirac, Fadlallah threatened "likely complications" if the ban were passed, which it was in 2004.

In recent years, there has been some equivocation in French policy towards Hezbollah. Thus, in May 2004, the French ambassador to the United States, Jean-David Levitte, called Hezbollah mostly a "social" organization. Furthermore, Levitte argued that there was no reason to put the group on the European Union's terrorist list.

Nevertheless, in August 2004, France and the United States cosponsored U.N. Resolution 1559 calling for the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and the disarming of militias including Hezbollah, although the French initially hedged on the second point, stressing that Hezbollah could be disarmed only by the Lebanese authorities.

And at home, France took some unilateral actions against Hezbollah. Notably, in December 2004, France banned Al-Manar, Hezbollah's virulently anti-Semitic and propagandistic television channel, though it did so only under tremendous pressure from outraged French politicians and members of the public. The hate speech common on Al-Manar could no longer be ignored in light of the tough French laws on anti-Semitism. The real tipping point in French policy, though, was the murder on February 14, 2005, of Rafik Hariri, former prime minister of Lebanon and a close friend of Jacques Chirac.

France reacted by adopting a tougher stand towards Hezbollah. On August 29, Chirac, addressing French ambassadors, stated that every aspect of Resolution 1559 must be enforced, and Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy reiterated this a few days later in an interview with the newspaper Asharq Al Awsat. Minister of European Affairs Catherine Colonna went so far as to condemn Hezbollah's "illegal and violent actions" against Israel.

Only on the matter of putting Hezbollah on the E.U.'s list of terrorist organizations has France continued to drag its feet. Hezbollah is a political party, say the French, and to declare it a terrorist organization could destabilize Lebanon. Yet France is edging toward linking the T-word with Hezbollah. Gérard Araud, French ambassador to Israel, declared on September 27 that France wants to give Hezbollah "a share in the democratic process and to understand that in this democratic process there's no place for weapons and for terrorism." He went on to say that putting Hezbollah on the terrorist list would change nothing but would play into the hands of the Arab world, which would see in this action "an American-Zionist plot." France "does not want to give them that pleasure."