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France Admits to Talks With Hamas

The French government says it has held informal talks with Hamas for the first time in months, and suggests that the militant Palestinian group is showing new flexibility. For VOA, Lisa Bryant has more from Paris.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner described the contact with Hamas as informal and suggested it was France's duty to be in touch with the Palestinian group.

In an interview on Europe1 radio, Kouchner downplayed the discussions, saying they did not amount to establishing relations with Hamas. They were simply contacts, he said, which were necessary if France is to play a role in resolving the Middle East conflict. He said the real discussions should be taking place between the rival Palestinian factions.

France apparently broke off contacts with Hamas after it took over Gaza by force last June. Reports Paris has since held discussions with the group were first published by France's Le Figaro newspaper, which quoted a French envoy who met with two senior Hamas officials a month ago. The envoy, a former French ambassador to Iraq, Yves Aubin de la Messuziere, told the newspaper that the Hamas officials said they were willing to stop suicide attacks and recognized the legitimacy of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

Kouchner said Hamas seemed to be more flexible than before and was willing to recognize a future Palestinian state, although he did not specify under what criteria. But he said Hamas was not ready to recognize Israel.

The talks suggest that France is moving away from a U.S.-led policy of isolating Hamas.

Besides classifying Hamas as a terrorist organization which opposes Israel's right to exist, the Bush administration believes that contacts with Hamas undermine Mr. Abbas and the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, who favor negotiations for a permanent two-state solution with Israel.

Kouchner said Paris was willing to hold talks with other groups in order to be what he called "useful." He said that included Syria and that he had spoken to Syrian officials just over two weeks ago.