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Wed 21 Jan 2009 04:05 AM

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France signals easing of stance on Hamas

 The French have indicated that they might be prepared to hold talks with Hamas

France signaled on Tuesday that it might be prepared to hold talks with Hamas even if the group does not recognise Israel as Paris and other Western powers have demanded for years.

The "Quartet" of Middle East mediators - the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia - has said there can be no dealings with Hamas until it recognises Israel, renounces violence and accepts existing interim peace deals.

French Foreign Ministry spokesman Eric Chevallier, however, said that renouncing violence was the most important of those three conditions, an apparent shift in France's position.

"We repeat that the elements of the Quartet have been defined. There is obviously an absolutely major element, which is renouncing violence," Chevallier told a news conference.

When asked if France was scrapping the recognition of Israel as a precondition, he said: "I did not say that it was not a precondition" but repeated his phrase suggesting that renouncing violence was more important than the other conditions.

Hamas seized control of Gaza from the Fatah forces of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 after winning an election the year before.

Israel and the West boycotted governments led by Hamas because the group rejects Israel's right to exist.

Abbas, whose Fatah faction controls the West Bank, has called for a Palestinian national unity government to pave the way for elections after Israel's 22-day military offensive in Gaza, which killed more than 1,300 people.

Chevallier said France was prepared to work with a Palestinian national unity government.

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