PARIS — France acknowledged Monday that it had informal contacts with Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that the United States and the European Union consider a terrorist organization for its campaign of violence against Israel.
Washington swiftly condemned the move, but French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said such contacts are needed to gauge the humanitarian and political situation in the Middle East. He said other European countries had quietly done likewise, a contention supported by Hamas.
The opening, however slight, exposed new discord over how to deal with the Islamic militant group, which much of the international community has treated as a pariah since it seized control of the Gaza Strip in June.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy has embraced Israel since taking office a year ago, in contrast to predecessors who nurtured France's traditionally strong relations with the Arab world. But experts note that Sarkozy has signaled the need for "bridges."
Speaking on French radio Europe-1, Kouchner insisted that the French contacts with Hamas over "several months" did not amount to "relations" or "negotiations."
He did not delve into the substance of the contacts, but said Hamas has become more "flexible" -- even if it still refuses to recognize the Jewish state's right to exist.
These are "contacts, and nothing else, to inform us about the situation -- first on the humanitarian front, and then especially the political one. That's it," Kouchner said later.
The U.S. government frowned on Kouchner's comments and reiterated that the Bush administration feels Hamas should be shunned until it changes its behavior.
Israeli officials said they would seek clarification from Kouchner when he visits Israel later this week as part of a previously planned trip. Sarkozy is scheduled to visit the region next month.