JERUSALEM -- Seeing a chance to add diplomatic credentials to her bid for France's presidency, Ségolène Royal jumped into the intricacies of the Middle East crisis with gusto -- only to get tripped up in Lebanon.
The Socialist candidate failed to react immediately when a Hezbollah lawmaker with whom she met Friday compared Israel's former occupation of Lebanon to that of the Nazis in France during World War II.
The next day, as criticism mounted, Royal insisted that she had not heard the remark, made in Arabic and translated for French reporters covering her trip. Royal, who had a different translator, said she would have left the meeting in protest if she had heard. The comments, she said, were "unacceptable, abominable and hateful."
But, by then, the damage was seemingly done. Back in France, her political rivals have seized on the incident as evidence that a candidate without experience of top government posts is a diplomatic lightweight, even a liability.
While foreign policy does not top French voters' concerns, the perception that Royal cannot be trusted to handle the world's most pressing and delicate issues is one that she or any serious French presidential candidate can ill afford.
In France, foreign policy is the near-exclusive domain of the president, and negotiating international affairs will be a major part of Royal's job if elected next spring. Supporters of Nicolas Sarkozy, Royal's leading challenger on the French right, led the criticism. Sarkozy's party said Royal's five-day trip was "poorly prepared," "useless for peace" and "dangerous."
Defense Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie suggested that Royal may have endangered French lives in Lebanon, where France has 1,500 troops in the UN peacekeeping force monitoring the cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah.
Sarkozy himself, who is taking care not to appear ungentlemanly against a female candidate, was more measured, noting that the Middle East is "extremely complicated."
But one of his close advisers, Francois Fillon, showed no such restraint. He told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper that Royal had "fallen into Hezbollah's trap."
"Accepting to speak with a member of Hezbollah, which advocates the destruction of Israel, was already a mistake," Fillon said. "Letting him insult France's allies -- whether they are the United States or Israel -- without reacting, is another serious mistake."
Royal is not the first Western politician to have hit trouble on a Middle Eastern foray. In 1999, a trip by Hillary Clinton was also portrayed by her critics as a political disaster -- after she, too, failed to immediately react to inflammatory comments by Suha Arafat, Yasser Arafat's wife. Suha Arafat said the Israelis have used poison gas against Palestinians.
But Royal was still returning from the Middle East with photos of herself shaking hands with Israeli, Lebanese, and Palestinian leaders.
On Sunday, she was in Gaza for talks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. She paid respects yesterday at Israel's official Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, in Jerusalem, devoted to the memory of 6 million Jews killed in Nazi extermination camps during World War II.