French President Francois Mitterrand triggered fresh criticism of his handling of foreign policy from the right-wing opposition today by flying to Syria for a meeting with President Hafez Assad.
Mitterrand's trip to Syria, the first such visit by a French head of state since the country became independent from France in 1946, followed a meeting earlier this month with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi on the Greek island of Crete. It has also coincided with a major setback to French policy in Chad and a sudden upsurge in separatist violence on the French island of New Caledonia in the Pacific.
Mitterrand's arrival to a red-carpet welcome in Damascus was almost overshadowed by street demonstrations greeting the surprise return of Assad's brother, Rifaat.
At a state dinner Monday night, President Assad said that "Israel and its allies across the Atlantic" were to blame for undermining relations between France and Syria, United Press International reported.
He added: "We have joined our voices in support for a call for an international Middle East peace conference . . . and realize the importance of the role Europe, and foremost France, can play in convening the conference," state-run media quoted Assad as saying.
[There was no immediate reply from Mitterrand.]
[Coinciding with Mitterrand's visit to Syria, the commander in chief of the Libyan armed forces arrived in Damascus Monday night, the Syrian news agency SANA reported. There was no indication whether Mitterrand and Brig. Gen. Abu Bakr Younis Jabir would meet, Reuter reported.]
The sudden spate of overseas problems confronting France has embarrassed Mitterrand politically at a time when his standing in the opinion polls has dropped sharply because of economic difficulties.
A storm of criticism has surrounded Mitterrand's handling of the situation in Chad. Last week, opposition members of the National Assembly attacked his decision to meet with Qaddafi after Libya's failure to respect the terms of a September agreement with France to withdraw its troops from the former French colony of Chad.
Yesterday, five Gaullist former prime ministers issued a statement expressing concern about a breakdown of law and order in New Caledonia, where separatist politicians have announced the establishment of a "provisional government."
Today a former member of Mitterrand's own government, Michel Jobert, said the president should have stayed in Paris to look after the crisis in New Caledonia.
Jobert, who also served as foreign minister in a previous Gaullist administration, noted that questions remain about Syria's possible role in the murder of a former French ambassador to Lebanon. Other commentators cited Syrian opposition to French policy in Lebanon.
French officials have defended Mitterrand's decision to meet with Qaddafi and Assad on the ground that France traditionally has sought to maintain its links with the Arab world by being prepared to talk to anybody.
A Mitterrand confidant, Louis Mermaz, defended the president's foreign policies today.
"We have to speak to different partners if we want France to play a role in the Middle East," Mermaz, who is president of the French National Assembly, said.
The three-day presidential trip began under a public relations cloud after stringent baggage and body searches by Syrian security men prompted protests by arriving French journalists and a formal complaint by the French ambassador to the Syrian Foreign Ministry. Syrian officials at first also attempted to prevent French television from transmitting news film of Rifaat Assad's return to Damascus from Paris.