French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris, 13 Nov 2009
French President Nicolas Sarkozy (L) welcomes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris, 13 Nov 2009

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been pushing the stalled Middle East peace process this week, holding talks with Middle East leaders including Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Friday.  But Mr. Assad, for one, has dismissed the idea of direct talks with Israel for the moment.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the French news agency, AFP, Friday he was not willing to hold direct talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling instead for lower level Turkish mediation.  Mr. al-Assad was reported to have made the comments in Paris following talks with French President Nicolas Sarkozy and an invitation for dialogue from the Israeli prime minister.

Earlier, Mr. al-Assad told the French daily Le Figaro that the Obama administration needed to develop a plan of action before talks with Israel could take place.

The discussions between French and Syrian leaders caps a flurry of diplomatic activity by the French president, who has been trying to nudge the two sides to resume long stalled peace negotiations.  Mr. Sarkozy met with Mr. Netanyahu in Paris on Wednesday and on Thursday spoke by telephone with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, who says he does not want to run for another term.

The French presidency has issued statements emphasizing the need to rekindle the Middle East peace process on all fronts, including the Syrian one.  Relations between France and Syria have been warming lately, and the two leaders traded visits last year.

In an interview earlier this week on French radio, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said France - and the European Union - had a role to play in moving the stalled peace process forward.

Kouchner said it was important to persuade Mr. Abbas to continue as Palestinian president. He said France had good ties with the Palestinians and Israelis and both France and Europe had a position that counted in the region. He said he would be traveling to the Middle East shortly.

Middle East expert Robin Lowe believes Mr. Sarkozy is pushing the peace process now because other efforts, including by Washington, appear to be floundering. But Lowe, an analyst at London policy institute Chatham House, is not certain that French mediation will make much difference.

"The French position or the French presence is problematic in the Palestinian context," said Lowe. "The Israelis are not normally minded to listen to any great extent to the French and as everybody is aware, ultimately the only player with any real heavy clout is the United States. I would be very surprised if any French move was separate from the European Union. I'm sure it's been coordinated with them. But ultimately, there's a limited amount they can achieve."

Still, France has historic ties in the Middle East. France also has Western Europe's largest populations of Jews and Muslims. Which means that what happens in the Middle East matters in France.