PARIS - France acknowledged yesterday 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 an extremist group that much of the international community has treated as a pariah since it seized control of the Gaza Strip by force last June. Word of the contacts comes after Jimmy Carter, the former US president, met with Hamas leaders in Syria last month.
It was even more striking because 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 noted that Sarkozy has signaled the need for "bridges" in response to Carter's contentious visit.
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 told reporters later at the Foreign Ministry.
"I think . . . we're not the only ones to have contacts of this type - just to inform ourselves - and particularly in the European Union," he added.
The US government frowned on Kouchner's comments and reiterated that the Bush administration feels Hamas should be shunned until it changes its behavior.
"We don't think it is wise or appropriate," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said "We don't believe it is helpful to the process of bringing peace to the region."
Israeli officials said they would seek clarification from Kouchner when he visited Israel later this week as part of a previously planned trip. Sarkozy is scheduled to visit the region next month.
In Brussels, European Union officials insisted that the 27-member bloc had no official contact with Hamas, other than when EU aid officials come into contact intermittently with local elected leaders or low-level authorities on projects.
The Quartet of Middle East mediators - the United States, European Union, United Nations, and Russia - has demanded that Hamas renounce violence, recognize Israel, and accept previous peace accords as a condition for any talks with the militant group.
The French Foreign Ministry sought to play down Kouchner's remarks, insisting that there was no change in policy.
Hamas quickly corroborated the minister's report of contacts and it said it had had communication with other European countries.
Spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said talks were "about exploring Hamas's positions on political issues" and were not discussions about opening formal relations. "It reflects Europe's awareness that it made a mistake in boycotting Hamas," he said, without identifying any countries.
Kouchner addressed the issue of contacts with Hamas in response to an interview published yesterday in the Paris newspaper Le Figaro in which a retired French diplomat said he had met with Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas strongman in Gaza, and with Haniyeh.
The Foreign Ministry said later that the former diplomat, Yves Aubin de la Messuziere, had made the trip on "an individual basis" although the ministry had been informed.
Aubin de la Messuziere told the newspaper that Hamas leaders said "they were ready to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders - which amounts to an indirect recognition of Israel."
"They said they were ready to stop suicide attacks, and what surprised me is that the Islamist leaders recognize the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas," he said, referring to the moderate Palestinian president and leader of the Fatah movement - Hamas's main rival.