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Western Press Review: French And German Elections, Venezuela, Oil Dominance, And The Mideast

Prague, 16 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Commentary in the Western press today looks at the resignation and surprise return of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, France's boredom with its presidential candidates, German elections and the fall of the Kirch media giant, the struggle for dominance in oil production, seeking the truth about events at the Jenin refugee camp, and the Middle East.


An editorial in "The New York Times" today looks at the resignation last week, then reinstatement on 13 April, of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Venezuela, says the editorial, "desperately needs a steady hand in the presidential palace to encourage political and economic reform." It characterizes Chavez's three-year rule as "divisive and demagogic." "The New York Times" is blunt: "Mr. Chavez's record as president is terrible," it writes. "He has failed to keep campaign promises to end corruption and diversify the sputtering economy. He has blocked independent press coverage, stacked the government and state companies with cronies, and built alliances with [Cuban President] Fidel Castro and [Iraqi leader] Saddam Hussein."

The editorial continues: "There remains every reason to worry about his policies and plans, despite his promises yesterday to repair relations with his opponents. Mr. Chavez needs to rebuild a meritocratic and professional bureaucracy in government and state-run companies, encourage entrepreneurship across the society, and investigate allegations that his civilian support groups have been arming themselves. Venezuela desperately needs to rebuild civil discourse and strengthen relations between the poor and dispossessed who see Mr. Chavez as their savior and the middle and business classes who view him as a Castro clone bent on seizing their assets." The paper concludes that "the only hope" for Chavez, as well as for Venezuela, is for the president "to step back from his confrontational agenda."


In a piece reprinted in today's "International Herald Tribune," "Los Angeles Times" syndicated columnist William Pfaff discusses the presidential election in France, the first round of which begins on 21 April. Pfaff says the French are annoyed, even angry, for having such "dispiriting choices." The two main candidates, President Jacques Chirac on the populist right and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin from what Pfaff calls the "professorial left," have governed France together for the past five years in precarious "cohabitation." Pfaff says each man now "goes to the electorate unconvincingly claiming, despite their joint record, to offer something different and better for the future." Both candidates have also been tainted with scandal: Chirac has been linked to party funding scandals, questionable favors to friends, and public funds misdirected for personal use. Jospin "has a newly revealed past of clandestine conspiracy with a Trotskyist sect."

Even so, Pfaff says the electorate seems "morbidly attached to the old," as support for alternative candidates is minimal. Furthermore, the parliamentary system "works against the emergence of new men with new ideas. [It] is all but impossible in France for someone to make a successful entry into national politics at a high level," says Pfaff. But the French are "a turbulent people." He says while this election may not produce any surprises, there may yet be surprises to come.


In discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" says there is a glimmer of hope from outside sources in the latest attempts to solve the long-standing dispute. Now that the U.S. is exerting pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the latter is considering attending a regional conference of Arab states, which might break the deadlock in negotiations.

In Riyadh, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al Faisal has praised the seven-point plan put forward by German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, which serves to complement the aims and visions of the plan submitted by Crown Prince Abdullah and recently adopted by the Arab League Summit.

Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is pressing on with his mission by visiting Lebanon and Syria. There are signs that indicate a "quartet" of international actors -- the UN, the U.S., the EU, and Russia -- are all concerned with finding a solution to the conflict. But the editorial says all efforts will prove to be in vain if the two conflicting parties are not seriously prepared to cooperate. Nobody can force peace, it says.


An editorial in "The Times" of Britain says the turmoil in the Middle East -- coupled with the resignation and reinstatement of President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, one of the world's largest oil exporters -- are leading many oil producers and importers alike to use the uncertainty "to pursue ruthlessly self-interested policies."

It says Iraq's announced 30-day embargo on exports "is a cheap and cynical move to bolster its standing within the Arab world." U.S. President George W. Bush has renewed his calls for drilling in Alaskan wildlife reserves, long a goal of his administration. For its part, Saudi Arabia's strategy is to maintain prices at about $25 a barrel.

"The Times" goes on to say that Saudi Arabia, which it calls "the arbiter of world production," is facing "a new and deadly challenge: Russia. For the past two years Russia has quietly increased its output by almost half a million barrels a day, and last month overtook Saudi Arabia to become the world's largest producer." Russia's long-term aim "is to switch the West's dependence on Arab oil to Russia."

"The Times" says many countries "are talking up the Middle East threat for political as much as economic reasons. Oil prices are notoriously volatile, buffeted as much by consumer fears as producer cunning. This uncertainty may continue for a prolonged period," it says.

But the paper adds, "This does not mean that a new oil crisis is on the way."


A "Stratfor" commentary discusses the collapse of Germany's dominant media company, the Kirch Group, and what effects it may have on upcoming German elections.

"Stratfor" says "the massive, high-profile failure of the Bavaria-based company threatens to torpedo the campaign for chancellor of Christian Democratic Union candidate Edmund Stoiber, the Bavarian state governor." Stoiber holds a lead over current Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, ahead of September elections.

The commentary says Stoiber's campaign strategy "has been to attack Schroeder on his handling of the German economy, the main point of vulnerability for the chancellor." Schroeder has failed to make good on his election pledges of job creation, and the German economy lags behind Europe in terms of growth. Stoiber "has based his campaign on the relative economic success of Bavaria under his leadership, and Kirch's collapse threatens to undermine that core message."

Kirch's failure is tainting Stoiber's record of economic success and is "threatening to call into question the Bavarian business model that is the foundation of Stoiber's campaign. Not only is Kirch heading toward bankruptcy, but there are mounting charges of accounting irregularities. To make matters worse for Stoiber, Kirch's largest creditor, Bayerische Landesbank, is 50 percent owned by the state of Bavaria."

"Stratfor" says the Kirch issue "may give Schroeder just the tool he needs to turn the tide of the election. It cuts to the core of Stoiber's political reputation and his campaign platform."


A "Financial Times" editorial today looks at the events that took place at the Palestinian refugee camp at Jenin. Palestinians claim a massacre, that bodies have been buried in mass graves. An Israeli army spokesman last week described "hundreds" of Palestinian casualties -- a figure that was later reduced to "dozens."

But the "Financial Times" says it is clear that "the massive Israeli military operation in towns and refugee camps throughout the West Bank has caused a humanitarian crisis." Israeli and international human rights organizations claim there have also been "widespread human rights violations" as Israeli troops searched for alleged terrorists.

Security forces "are expected to maintain civilized standards towards civilians," the editorial says. This rule of war has not been followed in the West Bank: "For more than two weeks, thousands of Palestinians have been confined to their homes. Allowed out to search for supplies for a few hours only twice a week, many are in desperate need of food and water."

In Jenin, 3,000 people are homeless while hundreds, perhaps thousands, of young men "have been detained as potential terrorists and are being held without food for up to three days, according to human rights organizations."

The "Financial Times" says Israel "prides itself on its attachment to democratic values and the observation of human rights. But its activities over the past 17 days in the Palestinian territories have gravely damaged its international standing."


In France's "Liberation" daily, columnist Gerard Dupuy says U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was "politely rebuffed" by both the Palestinians and Israelis during his trip to the Mideast. The Israelis snubbed him by continuing their offensive despite U.S. calls for a withdrawal. The Palestinians, for their part, went only so far as condemning actions against civilians but refused to call a truce.

But Dupuy says because the U.S. is an indispensable ally, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also made a conciliatory gesture -- he indicated his willingness to participate in an international conference on the Mideast conflict, but without Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Dupuy asks, How can one discuss the fate of the Palestinians without the Palestinians?

Dupuy says, nevertheless, that Sharon's offer of these negotiations does symbolize a willingness to accept international mediation in a potential settlement. But Sharon also excludes any European involvement, as he considers them to be too pro-Palestinian.

Dupuy notes that several European nations, at the instigation of France, signed a resolution of the UN Commission on Human Rights denouncing "the massacres and massive killings" committed by the Israeli Defense Forces. Dupuy says while these allegations have yet to be proven, they cannot be dismissed either, as Israel has thus far not allowed any thorough investigation to take place.

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)