| A woman clears broken glass from her apartment after a bomb attack in central Baghdad. (Reuters)
Paris, Oct. 4 (Reuters): French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin called a ministerial crisis meeting on two French journalists held hostage in Iraq today as efforts to secure their release threatened to turn into a fiasco.
Raffarin summoned his top ministers after a row broke out between the government and two self-appointed negotiators whose parallel mediations on behalf of Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot collapsed at the weekend.
Le Monde newspaper increased pressure on President Jacques Chirac by saying he had long known more than he was prepared to say about the mediation by parliamentarian Didier Julia, a member of his own party, and businessman Philippe Brett.
Denials of any official connection with the mission have done nothing to dispel an impression of chaos in French diplomacy that has undermined confidence in the official policy of discreet diplomacy to secure the journalists' release.
'It's bordering on the ridiculous. French diplomacy has been humiliated,' said Segolene Royal, a Socialist regional leader.
Her remarks broke an unspoken agreement under which the Opposition had refrained from criticising the government over its handling of the crisis since the hostages were seized by a group called the Islamic Army in Iraq on August 20.
Royal demanded an explanation from Raffarin when he briefs parliamentarians on the crisis tomorrow. Julia, due to return to Paris from Beirut, faces punishment by leaders of his and Chirac's Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.
The government accused Julia at the weekend of torpedoing indirect contacts between French officials and the kidnappers.
The government and presidency distanced itself from Julia's mission as soon as it started. But Le Monde said today that Chirac's office had been kept informed by Julia at every step. 'The French authorities were in the know for more than a month,' Le Monde said. 'The 'parallel team'...informed the Elysee (presidency) of its initiative from September 28.'
A presidential spokesman said the true nature of Julia's parallel mission had become clear to the presidency only after it began and that any information received beforehand gave no real indication of what Julia and Brett planned.
'The public authorities repeat that they neither approved nor supported the personal initiative of Julia and his associates,' the spokesman said.
Yves Bonnet, former head of the DST counter-intelligence service, called for an inquiry into the parallel mediation, saying: 'It is a question not only of the credibility of the ruling party, but of the credibility of France.'
France was shocked by the kidnapping, which undermined the belief that France's opposition to the US invasion last year gave its citizens some security.
Foreign minister Michel Barnier went to the region and mobilised a wide front of Arab leaders and Muslim figures to call for their release but this did not bring them freedom.
France's policy has been increasingly in question since Italy managed quickly to obtain the release of two women aid workers.
Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr hinted today that he may not take part in elections planned for January, telling Lebanese television he rejected polls serving foreign not Iraqi interests. 'These are going to be US elections,' he told Lebanon's al-Manar television.