French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner has broken with a general taboo and for the first time acknowledged that France has had "contacts" with Hamas, a radical Palestinian movement, which seized control of the Gaza Strip mid last year.
"It would be difficult to deny this fact," the foreign minister, who appeared to be responding to an article published by the daily Le Figaro, said Monday during an interview with France's Europe 1 radio.
The chief French diplomat, however, downplayed the significance of the contacts, noting that both Europeans and Americans had pledged not to maintain relations with Hamas as long as it does not recognize the State of Israel, fails to accept peace talks and renounce violence.
"These are not relations, but rather contacts," said Kouchner, adding: "We are not the only ones to maintain such contacts" and "we are not responsible for holding any negotiations."
"We have to be able to speak with Hamas if we want to play a role, if we want our emissaries to move freely in Gaza," said the foreign minister, in remarks that drew a mild rebuke from the United States.
"We make it clear that we don't think that having contacts with Hamas is something that brings peace any closer to the people of the Middle East," U.S. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack told reporters.
According to Le Figaro, Yves Aubin de La Messuziere, a senior retired French diplomat who once served as ambassador to Iraq, had visited Gaza over a month ago to hold discussions with Ismael Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar, two prominent leaders of the movement.
While insisting on the fact that his visit was not "official," the foreign minister said that the Hamas leadership had indicated that it was "ready to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, which is an indirect recognition of Israel."
In addition, said the minister, the Hamas leaders had "expressed their willingness to stop suicide attacks" and "recognize the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas as the overall presidentof the Palestinian Authority."
France suspended its official relations with Hamas in June 2007,after the radical movement wrestled control of the Gaza Strip from the Abbas-led moderate Palestinian movement Fatah.
However, in March this year, Kouchner had suggested a shift in the position of Paris, saying that "at some point, we will have to speak" with Hamas.
"It is not up to the French to talk to Hamas, even if in fact we can maintain contacts. It is up to the Palestinians first and foremost and then the Israelis," said the minister.
In April, during a television interview, President Nicolas Sarkozy had explained that "as head of state," he had "no right to speak to an organization which had announced that it intended to wipe Israel from the map."
However, the French head of state was quick to point out that we must "willingly admit that Hamas represents a sizable portion of the population" of Palestine.