As France awaits word on two journalists being held hostage in Iraq, officials have made it clear that they expect to benefit from their stand against the U.S.-led invasion and occupation. "France has always pleaded for the sovereignty of this country and supported its people," Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said last week as the crisis unfolded.
The safe return of the journalists, Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, would not only end a crisis that has gripped the country but would also ratify the value of French opposition to the Bush administration's Iraq policy, political observers said.
In lobbying for the captives' freedom, the observers said, France had gained support from governments in the Middle East, Muslim religious leaders and even the Hezbollah guerrilla group, which has used kidnappings in its fight against Israel's occupation of southern Lebanon.
"The French diplomatic effort has been impressive. If the hostages are released, it is a plus for French foreign policy," said Guillaume Parmentier, a political analyst and expert on U.S.-French relations.
Dominique Moisi, a foreign affairs expert, said that "France's ability to mobilize friends is outside recognition" of the French policy. "The basis of the policy is that France fights terrorism as much as anyone, it's just that going into Iraq was not the best way," Moisi said.
The kidnappers, the Islamic Army in Iraq, threatened to kill the journalists if the French government refused to rescind a ban on Muslim head scarves in public schools. The law went into effect Thursday, the opening day of school.
On Thursday, French officials said they believed that the hostages had been transferred to a group that favors negotiations. But on Friday, Hisham Dulaymi, an Iraqi tribal leader who has been involved in the negotiations, said that the Islamic Army in Iraq was still holding them.
On Monday, a message purporting to be from the kidnappers was posted on the Internet stating new demands: $5 million in ransom, a truce with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden or a pledge that France would not get involved with Iraq militarily or commercially. The statement said that meeting just one of the demands would win the hostages' release.
French news outlets reported Monday that French officials were upset over the timing of recent U.S. military action around Fallujah and Samarra and believe it may have put off the journalists' release. The two, who were kidnapped Aug. 19, are believed to be held in that vicinity, north and west of Baghdad; Monday's statement from the kidnappers made a reference to recent attacks.
France has no troops in Iraq. If the hostages are released, analysts said, France should not be viewed as having triumphed by tolerating terrorism. "It is scandalous to suggest that the French attitude is based on appeasement of terrorists," Parmentier said.
France also could be viewed as an ally by anti-U.S. groups in Iraq and elsewhere in the Arab world, some of which have tacitly or openly endorsed the killing of civilians.
Yusuf Qaradawi, a prominent Egyptian cleric, told reporters in Cairo recently that fighting U.S. soldiers and civilians in Iraq was "a duty" for Muslims. But he urged the kidnappers to free the French journalists because "they broke the American monopoly on relaying information."
At a recent news conference in Baghdad, Mohammed Bashar Faidhi of the Association of Muslim Scholars appealed for the release of the hostages on the grounds that France's dispute with the United States over Iraq "serves our interests because it keeps the occupation weak."
The association, a Sunni Muslim group that opposes the U.S.-led occupation, has negotiated the release of other foreign hostages, notably some held in Fallujah, a city under control of groups that have organized attacks against U.S. troops, car bombings and kidnappings of foreign civilians.
"Our goal is to besiege the Americans politically in every spot in the world, and this act is not serving our goal," Faidhi said. "France, as an anti-occupation country, has been helpful to our cause." The French delegation that visited Baghdad on Thursday met with members of the association.
But an editorial published Friday in an Iraqi newspaper with the same name as the capital, Baghdad, said of French President Jacques Chirac: "Chirac, who wants to present himself as fair, must take his share of responsibility in the kidnapping of his two compatriots as he opposed all international resolutions aimed at restoring Iraqis' security." France's Foreign Ministry declined to comment on the editorial, which was titled "Chirac You Did Not Hear Our Pleas." The newspaper is controlled by the party of Ayad Allawi, the interim prime minister.
Chirac may soon be faced with a decision on whether to participate in some form in Iraq. The European Union is considering proposals by the Netherlands, which holds the rotating E.U. presidency, about taking an active role. "We are going to analyze the political and security situation on the ground and reflect on ways that Europe can strengthen its role," Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot said in a note to other E.U. foreign ministers, according to reports in French newspapers.
Parmentier said he did not believe the hostage crisis would influence France's decision on whether it would take part. "If it contributes to stability, it will be okay with France," he said.