France urges consensus on Lebanon president

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BEIRUT, Nov 13 (Reuters) French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner urged feuding Lebanese leaders today to agree on a compromise presidential candidate, trying to break a deadlock in a crisis that could plunge the country into turmoil.

Parliament is due to elect a new president next week to replace pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud, but the standoff has already delayed the vote three times. The November 21 vote is now critical because Lahoud's term ends on November 23, and there are fears of political chaos if a successor is not chosen in time.

The deadlock is the latest contentious issue in a year-old crisis -- the worst since the 1975-1990 civil war -- which pits the Western-backed government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora against the pro-Syrian, Hezbollah-led opposition.

Kouchner, who is due to leave Lebanon on Tuesday, said he would return next Monday, indicating a deal on a compromise candidate was not imminent.

''There must be consensus on a presidential candidate,'' Kouchner said after meeting several officials in Beirut. ''I want to stress ... that I want and hope, and France wants and hopes that this process goes according to the Lebanese constitution.'' Kouchner's main focus during his 24-hour trip to Beirut was to nudge fiercely divided Maronite Christians towards agreement on a compromise candidate. The president has to be a Maronite according to Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system.

Kouchner said he had asked Maronite Patriarch Nasrallah Sfeir to present a list of potential candidates. Sfeir had recently refused to draw up such a list.

France, Lebanon's former colonial power, has been at the forefront of a mediation drive to resolve the issue.

Lebanese political sources said the intensified French initiative had been coordinated between US President George W Bush and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at a meeting in Washington last week.

There are fears Lebanese parties could take unilateral action and tip the country into chaos if no president is elected by the November 23. deadline.

Leading members of the anti-Syrian governing coalition have said their MPs, who have a slim parliamentary majority, have the right to gather in Lahoud's final 10 days in power to elect a president without a usual two-thirds quorum.

Hezbollah has said such a move would be tantamount to a coup. The group's leader, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called on Lahoud to take action if rival leaders are unable to agree on a consensus president. He appeared to be backing a suggestion that Lahoud form a parallel government.

Bush, in a call to Siniora yesterday, urged Lebanon to hold the election in line with its constitution and without allowing Syrian interference.

REUTERS SKB VC1859

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