France signals new openness on Muslim groups abroad
* France to talk to any Muslim group that renounces violence
* Policy shift breaks with suspicion of Muslim groups
By Yves Clarisse and Nick Vinocur
PARIS, April 19 (Reuters) - France is open to talking with any Muslim movement abroad that renounces violence, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said on Tuesday, signalling a policy shift in the face of popular revolts across the Middle East.
France has warned about confusion and difficulty in the NATO bombing campaign against troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi in Libya while renewing calls for a political solution to the two-month-old civil war.
The policy change -- which breaks with a precedent of supporting Western-friendly Arab leaders as a bulwark against Islamic extremism -- suggests France wants to build early ties with political groups that could take power in some Middle East states once the dust settles from political upheaval. "We are willing to talk to everyone," Juppe told a group of journalists in Paris. "Let us speak to everyone, let us speak to the Muslim Brotherhood."
Western countries including France have long held a suspicious view of popular Islamic movements like the Muslim Brotherhood, which traces its roots to Islamist ideology born in Egypt -- partly as a result of warnings by government leaders in countries where those movements have taken root.
The Brotherhood has become the biggest opposition force in Egypt ahead of free and fair elections planned following the February downfall of autocratic President Hosni Mubarak.
Explaining the policy shift, Juppe said France had been duped by leaders who made Muslim movements out as the devil.
"We believed them and now we can see the result," he said, referring to the slowness of France's reaction to budding popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt late last year.
In a sign of renewed warmth, President Nicolas Sarkozy will meet the head of Libya's rebel opposition, Mustafa Abdel Jalil, in Paris on Wednesday after being the first Western leader to recognize the rebel movement.
NEW GAME: DEMOCRACY OVER STABILITY
France was long seen as a friend to Arab peoples due to criticism of Israeli policy under the late President Charles de Gaulle, the sheltering of late Palestine Liberation Organisation leader Yasser Arafat and opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. France has since dispensed with this image.
Sarkozy has been an open supporter of Israel and took a so-called "pragmatic" position with regard to autocratic Arab leaders like deposed Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, who was often described in France as a moderate reformer.
France's new diplomatic tone suggests Sarkozy is favouring democratic aspirations -- and the hope of forming ties with a new generation of Arab leaders -- over stability.
"The fact we favoured stability brought by authoritarian regimes proves turned out not to be a good option because in the end, the stability disappeared," a French diplomat said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
A stronger accent on democratic aspirations is likely to please the United States, as long as it does not come at the expense of France's support of Israel. "It's very much along the lines of what we'd like to hear," a Western diplomat said.
Analysts highlighted the domestic aspect behind Juppe's statements, saying that Sarkozy -- whose popularity ratings remain dismal a year before a presidential election -- wants to ingratiate himself with France's immigrant population.
Many Muslims in France have been angered by a ban on full-face veils introduced by Sarkozy as well as a recent government debate on secularism in French society.
"Alain Juppe is indeed trying to rebuild a positive image of France in the Arab world and in the hearts and minds of Arabs everywhere," said Pascal Boniface, a researcher at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations.
(Editing by Mark Heinrich)
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