Syrian President Bashar Assad pays a controversial visit to Paris, where more than 40 heads of state are gathering to launch a new European-Mediterranean partnership. From the French capital, Lisa Bryant reports for VOA Mr. Assad's visits reflects changing diplomatic dynamics in the Middle East and in Europe.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is expected to meet Saturday afternoon with his Lebanese counterpart, Michel Suleiman, the emir of Qatar and their host, French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Middle East leaders are among more than 40 heads of state who will gather Sunday to launch a new partnership between the European Union and non-European states bordering the Mediterranean.

The Syrian leader's visit has been particularly newsworthy -- and controversial. Mr. Sarkozy's predecessor, Jacques Chirac, broke off official contacts with Damascus after the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

Some analysts now see the Syrian leader's presence here as a way to shore up his stature. But critics planned to protest Mr. Assad's visit.

That includes Laurent Attar-Bayrou, president of an association of former French peacekeepers who planned to march down the Champs Elysees to protest 1983 terrorist attacks in Beirut. Syria has denied any involvement in the strikes, which killed hundreds of US and French troops. Mr. Attar-Bayrou told French radio that the French government had prevented him and others from holding the demonstration.

Mr. Assad's presence also reflects a changing Middle East. Also due in Paris this weekend is Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Although there are no talks scheduled this weekend between the Israeli and Syrian leaders, Mr. Assad suggested in an interview published in France's Le Figaro newspaper that Mr.

Sarkozy could play a direct role in any future peace negotiations between Israel and Syria.