France has had informal contacts with Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that rules Gaza, Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said Monday. Hamas confirmed the contacts and said France was not the only European country to seek it out recently for talks.
The acknowledgement of secret contacts between France and a group considered terrorist by the United States and the European Union brought swift criticism from Washington.
Israel played down the revelation and insisted it has had reassurances from France — which has sought friendlier ties with Israel since President Nicolas Sarkozy came to office a year ago — that its policies haven't changed.
Kouchner said on Europe-1 radio that France has had contacts with Hamas leaders "for several months."
The Fatah party that dominated Palestinian politics for decades was trounced by Hamas in 2006 parliamentary elections. In June 2007, Hamas took Gaza by force, triggering a crisis among Palestinians.
Kouchner said France was not engaged in formal negotiations with Hamas. "These are not relations, they are contacts. We must be able to talk if we want to play a role," he said.
Sarkozy heading to Mideast in June
Kouchner made the announcement ahead of a three-day trip to the Palestinian territories and Israel this week. Sarkozy heads to the region next month.
As France's president, Sarkozy has embraced Israel, setting himself apart from predecessors who nurtured traditionally strong French relations with the Arab world. France has also sought to boost its role in the Mideast peace process under Sarkozy, and hosted an international donors conference for the Palestinians in December.
A Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip confirmed that his group had had contacts with France — and, beyond that, "communications with many European officials."
"It reflects Europe's awareness that it made a mistake in boycotting Hamas," said the spokesman, Sami Abu Zuhri.
He would not name the other countries that have been in contact with Hamas.
The talks, he said, were "about exploring Hamas' positions on political issues." There were no discussions about opening formal diplomatic relations, he said.
In a speech Sunday, Hamas' prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, said unidentified European delegations have been in Gaza recently to examine the Rafah border crossing and whether it could be reopened. The border has been sealed since last June's Hamas takeover.
In Israel, officials played down the French contacts with Hamas, saying they had received assurances from France that its policy had not changed at all.
U.S. not happy
In Washington, the State Department frowned on Kouchner's comments and reiterated that the Bush administration feels Hamas should be shunned until it changes its behavior.
"We don't think it is wise or appropriate," spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters in Washington when asked about French contacts with the group. "We have spoken out about that in the past when other individual states have chosen to have contacts. We don't believe it is helpful to the process of bringing peace to the region."
"Our position remains that Hamas should be forced to make a choice," he said. "The international system has laid out various conditions for them, they have yet to meet those conditions."
Kouchner said the talks were not held on a regular basis but provided no other details.
But a former ambassador to Iraq, Yves Aubin de la Messuziere, was quoted by Le Figaro daily as saying he met a month ago in Gaza with Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas strongman, and Ismael Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister.
France's Foreign Ministry said later that de la Messuziere made the trip on "an individual basis" but that ministry officials had been informed.
The Hamas leaders "assured (me) that they were ready to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, which amounts to an indirect recognition of Israel," the retired diplomat was quoted as saying.
"They said they were ready to stop suicide attacks, and what surprised me is that the Islamist leaders recognize the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas" — the moderate Palestinian president and Fatah's leader, de la Messuziere was quoted as saying.
Abbas' West Bank government is locked in a bitter rivalry with the Hamas regime in Gaza.
Kouchner, in the radio interview, said Hamas was "more flexible than before" but for the moment does not recognize the state of Israel.