|Visit by Sarkozy will send 'message from French democracy to Lebanese democracy'
|French President Nicolas Sarkozy is due in Beirut on Saturday to meet his counterpart Michel Sleiman, a rare move intended to send out a "message of unity" to the country.
French opposition leaders will join Sarkozy on his five-hour visit to Lebanon. Sarkozy will be the first Western head of state to meet Sleiman since the former army chief was elected president on May 25 following a Qatari-brokered deal to end an 18-month political crisis.
Sarkozy arrived in Greece Friday along with Defense Minister Herve Morin. He will go on to Lebanon on Saturday, joined from Paris by Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Kouchner arrived in Beirut late Friday evening.
Also he will be key opposition leaders: socialist Francois Hollande, centrist Francois Bayrou, communist Marie-George Buffet and left-wing hard-lines Jean-Michel Baylet.
The ruling Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire chief and its leader in Parliament, Patrick Devedjian and Jean-Francois Cope, will also be present, along with former Premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin.
French-Lebanese writer Amine Maalouf will also be part of the French delegation which will meet with leaders of 14 Lebanese political parties.
Sarkozy's office said he invited the opposition leaders to convey a "message of encouragement, of friendship and hope" as Lebanon emerges from months of sectarian strife.
"This is a message from French democracy to Lebanese democracy," an aide said.
Sarkozy's office has said Sleiman's "election marks a decisive step in the resolution of Lebanon's political crisis, to-ward which France has worked hard for the past year."
However, Sarkozy canceled plans to visit the French contingent serving as part of the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL), deciding instead to keep the visit "purely political," his office said.
Defense Minister Morin will visit the troops instead.
Meanwhile, Sleiman's media office released on Friday the agenda of Sarkozy's visit. Sarkozy is expected to arrive at the Rafik Hariri International Airport at 10:15 a.m. on Saturday, where Sleiman, along with Speaker Nabih Berri and Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and an array of ministers and MPs will be waiting for him.
Sarkozy and the delegation will set off to Baabda Palace, where he will hold one-on-one talks with Suleiman. A meeting grouping the French delegation and Lebanese officials will be held afterward.
After lunch, Sarkozy will head to the headquarters of the French Embassy for a reception.
The Daily Star