Dominique de VillepinBy Robert Graham in Paris

France yesterday called on Syria to accept the new realities in the Middle East, help end the confrontation with Israel and withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

The call, from Dominique de Villepin, the French foreign minister, came in unusually direct language for one of France’s traditional Middle East allies. But Paris appears to want to use its leverage on Syria to return to the diplomatic stage in the Middle East now the US has issued its “road map” for settling the Arab-Israeli problem.

France was instrumental in persuading Syria, which holds a seat on the United Nations Security Council, to back UN resolution 1441 that allowed a return of weapons inspectors to Iraq last November. Mr de Villepin has just returned from the Middle East where he met Syrian leader Bashir al-Assad.

The US has warned Syria to refrain from aiding members of the deposed Saddam Hussein regime and against its development of weapons of mass destruction. In urging that Syria help to promote Middle East peace, Mr de Villepin has worked closely with Colin Powell, US secretary of state.

“In the context of a global [Middle East] peace, we call on Syria do to everything possible to facilitate the application of the ‘road-map’ and for Israel to accept to negotiate [over] a return of the Golan Heights [to Syria],” Mr de Villepin said.

He added it was essential that Lebanon acquired its full sovereignty with the withdrawal of “all foreign troops”. The French foreign minister said Syria “can as of now make some gestures and continue the removal of its troops deployed in Lebanon”.

Although Syria has reduced its forces in Lebanon several times, most recently in February, it retains a substantial presence.

Turning to Iraq, Mr de Villepin stressed France’s desire to avoid confrontation with the US, having led resistance to the military intervention, and said Paris wanted to play a “constructive role” in the country’s reconstruction.

He repeated France’s willingness to see sanctions against Iraq lifted to ease the humanitarian situation, marking a sharp difference to the stance of Vladimir Putin, Russian leader, who rejects US and British hopes of a swift lifting of sanctions.

On Tuesday, Mr Putin tied the lifting of sanctions to the completion of the mission by UN weapons inspectors. In contrast Mr de Villepin emphasised practical measures to restore normal civilian life in Iraq.

Mr de Villepin’s bid to bring France back into the diplomatic fold stressed its role in bringing about a Middle East settlement. He said the new Palestinian government, and the changed situation in Iraq, provided a unique opportunity.