Image : French President Nicolas Sarkozy, fifth right, shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad
Eric Feferberg  /  AP
President Nicolas Sarkozy, fifth right, shakes hands with Syrian President Bashar Assad prior to the start of the Bastille Day ceremony in Paris on Monday.
updated 7/14/2008 11:40:42 AM ET 2008-07-14T15:40:42

The leaders of Syria and Israel, countries with a bitter enmity, as well as the Palestinian and Lebanese presidents together marked France's Bastille Day on Monday in a diplomatic coup for French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Other leaders from Europe, the Middle East and North Africa, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also attended the traditional Bastille Day parade, where troops in their finery marched down the tree-lined Champs-Elysees, and jets trailing smoke of red, white and blue roared overhead.

Syrian President Bashar Assad, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and more than two dozen other leaders stood on the official grandstand, looking up the Champs-Elysees toward the Arch of Triumph. The leaders had stayed over following a summit Sunday that launched an unprecedented Union for the Mediterranean, a brainchild of Sarkozy's aimed at securing peace across the restive region.

In launching the Mediterranean union, 43 nations, including Israel and Arab states, agreed to work for a Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction

No handshakes
Deep divisions still slice through the region and its population of 800 million people, and surfaced during Sunday's summit, highlighting how hard it will be to parlay the meeting's good will and words into real progress.

Assad refused to shake Olmert's hand, and Morocco's king snubbed the meeting attended by the president of rival Algeria. It was also unclear how the countries would enforce their pledge to "pursue a mutually and effectively verifiable Middle East Zone free of weapons of mass destruction."

Still, Sarkozy reveled at having brought so many leaders to the same table for the first time. His office brushed off critics' complaints that Assad should not have been allowed to stay for Monday's ceremonies because of Syrian human rights failings and suspicions that Syria was implicated in a 1983 bombing in Lebanon that killed 58 French soldiers.

Campaign group Reporters Without Borders called Assad an "enemy of press freedom" whose government is guilty of "ruthless censorship."

Assad, in dark glasses, showed no emotion as French actor Kad Merad read aloud an extract from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in front of the grandstand where the leaders stood.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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