"Syria has fulfilled its obligations regarding the conflict in Lebanon," Fillon said in response to the criticism launched against the invitation by leftist officials. He was referring to the international community's demand that Syria, which supports Hizbullah's influence in Lebanon, would not thwart the election of Michel Suleiman as the country's president after many months of political turmoil in which Lebanon remained without a leader.
According to Fillon, Syria's presence at the event is important to its theme, which is the promotion of peace in the region. "It is imperative that all of the Middle Eastern countries sit at the table together," he said.
Paris has moved to re-launch contacts with Damascus since the election of Suleiman last month. Visiting Beirut last week, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said a "new page may be opening in relations between France and Syria."
Assad is among 50 heads of state and government invited to the July 13 summit on the launch of a new Mediterranean Union, championed by Sarkozy as France takes over the European Union presidency. Experts say Sarkozy is hoping Assad's presence will boost the launch of the Mediterranean Union project, which has received a lukewarm welcome from some European and Arab states.
'Syrian question raises concerns'
But French opposition leaders have spoken out against inviting him to the July 14 parades, with the Socialist Party warning it would be unwise. "The Syrian question raises real concerns in Lebanon, particularly the prospect of seeing the Syrian head of state taking a front-seat place" at both the summit and the July 14 celebrations, said centrist leader Francois Bayrou, urging the government to "think very carefully".
Sarkozy's move to resume ties also drew a cautious reaction from Washington. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday she hoped Paris would send the right message to Damascus, adding that she assumed France would encourage Syria to take advantage of the indirect peace talks with Israel brokered by Turkey, and live up to its obligations not to interfere in Lebanese affairs.
Fillon said France would continue to demand that an international court investigate Hariri's assassination.