Syrian leader Bashar Assad was a controversial guest of honour at France’s Bastille Day celebrations — and snubbed his fellow guest, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.
Mr Assad was among more than 40 heads of state at Sunday’s launch of the Union for the Mediterranean, a French initiative to bring together the 27 states of the EU with the Balkans and their Arab neighbours.
His presence in the front row of dignitaries watching the military parade the next day, one seat away from President Nicolas Sarkozy, created unease among opposition leaders, human-rights activists and members of the Jewish community.
French military veterans were also angered because Syria is accused of orchestrating a 1983 attack that killed 58 French troops in Beirut. Several human-rights activists were arrested as they tried to protest.
“Bastille Day is tainted by controversy,” said Socialist leader François Holland.
French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner himself said last month that he was displeased by Mr Assad’s invitation. Former president Jacques Chirac, who had been a close friend of slain former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri — in whose murder Damascus has been implicated — chose not to attend the parade.
But for Mr Sarkozy, inviting Mr Assad to Paris was not negotiable. “Someone has to take chances,” Mr Sarkozy told a press conference, explaining a U-turn in French policy. He hopes that Syria will turn moderate once it emerges from its isolation, and hopes to launch direct talks between Jerusalem and Damascus.
However, despite weeks of feverish speculation ahead of the summit, there was no handshake between the Syrian and Israeli leaders.
On Bastille Day, Mr Olmert and Mr Assad were filmed on the stage, inches away from each other, but although Mr Olmert looked at Mr Assad, the latter avoided eye contact, let alone a handshake.
A French journalist told Mr Sarkozy at the summit’s press conference that Mr Assad had left the assembly before Mr Olmert’s speech, and that his foreign minister, Walid al-Moualem, left before Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni’s address. Mr Sarkozy said he “hadn’t noticed”, and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak responded: “So what? Assad probably had other things to do.”
Overlooking the critics, Mr Sarkozy said his initiative was a great success because of the European and Arab states which participated in the summit alongside Israel. Still, the only practical measures agreed were a handful of projects including taking action against pollution in the region and improving shipping routes.
Mr Sarkozy also announced he will visit Syria during the summer.