Reporter's Notebook: Hostage Politics

French journalists have been taken hostage while French President Jacques Chirac (search) consorts with a bunch of terrorists? Just what is happening in Paris?

Well, while the first bit about the hostages is certainly true, the second item is more a telling piece of French commentary.

The French have a bitingly satirical TV show called "Les Guignols." In it, puppet caricatures of political figures are lampooned. One of the latest episodes was especially trenchant.

Chirac — or rather his puppet counterpart — was shown with terrorists, including Usama bin Laden (search). They were all offering their support to the French head of state and his efforts to gain the release of the two French journalists held hostage by a radical Islamist group in Iraq.

Needless to say, Chirac was seen to be a bit uncomfortable with his new “pals.”

In fact, Chirac and Co. recently have used just about every chit and favor they had gathered in the Muslim world over the last several years, including some real eye-openers. No less threatening groups than Hamas, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad (search) have expressed their hope that the French reporters get released. Ditto a bunch of Sunni groups in Iraq not especially predisposed to the multinational forces there.

A leader of one group was quoted as saying France’s dispute with the United States over Iraq “serves our interests because it keeps the occupation weak.” This is not to forget Yasser Arafat’s warm words of encouragement for the French.

Gulp. At a time when Paris is inching toward making amends with the U.S., getting closer to a supportive role in Iraq's reconstruction and seeking to burnish its credentials in the War on Terror, the acceptance of this kind of adulation is questionable at the very least.

And Paris is not running away from its anti-war position at all. In the opening rounds of the negotiations for the hostages' release, politicians here underscored the lengths the French government used to thwart moves to topple Saddam and honor the “sovereignty” of the Iraqi people.

And not only is France getting itself into “hock” with global terror groups and other bad guys, it's also (in the words of one French analyst) “subcontracting out” its foreign policy operations to homegrown Muslim groups.

Representatives from leading French Islamic organizations went to Baghdad to plead France’s case. Among the points made: the debate over a new law banning the wearing of Muslim head scarves in state schools, the rescinding of which was a demand of the hostage-takers, is something for France and France alone ... no outsiders allowed.

In fact, what was expected to be a confrontational start to the school year due to the law turned out to be pretty low-key. Even Muslim opponents of the new rules, including one I spoke with, said his instructions to those who listen to him were to obey the law.

For now, anyway.

The thing is, most people in this world, especially in this part of the world, don’t do something for nothing. Analysts are wondering what the Islamic groups in France are going to want in return. There’s already one proposal to give Muslim students in France at least one holiday to counterbalance the ton of Catholic holidays the kids get in this ... um ... secular state.

And no one really thinks the government here is out of the woods when it comes to the head scarf law. There are already news reports that an increasing number of girls are coming to school with banned head wear. And new protests are being staged in other countries against the law.

After a flurry of positive signals from politicians here, the crisis has gotten mired in what most people should have expected: Greater Mideast Muck.

New demands have been made. The authenticity of the demands has been denied. And back-biting is picking up. While American military officials have been quoted as saying they’re helping the French, Muslim groups helping the French government have been alleging that the United States really doesn’t want the hostages released and that U.S.-led military actions thwarted a release attempt.

Then there’s the war of words between Iraq’s interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, who blasted France in a couple of forums for its lack of support of the new government in Iraq, implying that France's isolation from U.S.-led efforts in Iraq has not insulated France from terror trouble. None of this is appreciated in the stately corridors of power here in Paris.

Now all the action seems to be behind the scenes regarding the hostage crisis. Which is what Paris is better at doing anyway, having bought their way out of at least a few Mideast hostage crises in the past.

The latest communiqué from the radical group in Iraq indicates that a decision about the fate of the hostages could be near. Hopefully that means the reporters will come out of their imprisonment. Then we’ll have to see what the Parisian political fallout will be.