Lebanese rival parties, their country in political deadlock and facing violence on its northern and southern flanks, met outside Paris yesterday for unusual, long-awaited talks.
Hopes were not high for a breakthrough at the meeting, organized by the French Foreign Ministry. But participants said it was good news that it was happening at all.
Members of the country's 14 leading parties -- including Hezbollah and its allies -- gathered in the chateau at Celle Saint-Cloud, southwest of Paris, yesterday and today behind closed doors, with no set agenda. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and a few other French officials were also in attendance, but as observers, not mediators.
It was the first time the 14 parties were meeting since a national dialogue conference in November that failed to resolve the tensions. Since then, the country's worst political crisis since the end of the 1975 to 1990 civil war has deepened.
Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and the Hezbollah-led, pro-Syrian opposition are locked in a fierce power struggle.
One of the opposition's key demands is the creation of a new national unity government in which it has veto power, a move Siniora has resisted.
At this weekend's meetings, the participants were not the parties' leaders but a notch below.
Still, the talks were closely followed in Lebanon for any sign of softening positions. And while success at the talks may be difficult to judge, failure would be certain to deepen instability.
"It is already a step forward that the meeting is taking place," said Lebanese Telecommunications Minister Marwan Hamadeh, representing pro-Western Druze leader Walid Jumblatt.
A former colonial power, France has strong ties with some of the rival factions and hopes to use its leverage to encourage dialogue, but is keen not to be seen as dictating suggestions.