PARIS - France's foreign minister said on Friday he wanted major powers to agree on a transition calendar that would be imposed on Syrians, but ruled out any role for President Bashar al-Assad, who he said had "murdered" part of his population.
Jean-Yves Le Drian's comments come despite what has appeared to be a softening in Paris' position since the arrival of President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron's election victory gave Paris, which is a key backer of the Syrian opposition and the second-largest contributor to the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State, a chance to re-examine its policy in the country.
The change proposed by Macron was to drop demands Assad step down as a pre-condition for talks, although French officials still insist he cannot be the long-term future for Syria.
But Le Drian, who was defense minister under former President Francois Hollande, said the situation had changed because Islamic State militants were on the verge of defeat.
The focus now, he said, could turn to resolving the six-year civil war that has killed more than 300,000 and led millions of people to flee the country.
"He (Assad) cannot be part of the solution. The solution is to find with all the actors a calendar with a political transition that will enable a new constitution and elections" Le Drian told RTL radio.
"This transition cannot be done with Bashar al-Assad who murdered part of his population and who has led millions of Syrians to leave their territory." Critics of the previous French administration blasted it for remaining intransigent on the future of Assad, although it had eventually said that Assad would have to leave only once a transition process was complete.
CONTACT GROUP That position has also put it at odds with Russia and Iran, both backers of Assad, who say it is for the Syrian people to decide on their future.
While Britain has said Assad must go, diplomats say the United States has yet to outline a vision for a political process in Syria and is focusing primarily on defeating Islamic State.
Le Drian said if regional powers and the permanent members of the Security Council, which include France, agreed on banning chemical weapons, humanitarian access, and eradicating what he called internal terrorist groups, then they could proceed to a solution through an international contact group.
A political transition would involve a new constitution and an election, he said.
"That's what we want to do now even before Assad leaves. We do that independently because if we wait for the Syrians to agree we will wait a long time and there will be thousands more dead," Le Drian said.
Macron has repeatedly said he wants to create a new contact group, but French diplomats have so far been unable to explain how it would work and who would be part of it.
France wants to discuss the group's creation at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in September.
Le Drian has previously said the contact group would aim to help U.N.-brokered peace talks in Geneva that have stalled in large part down to the weakness of opposition groups and an intransigence by the Assad government to enter meaningful negotiations given its position of strength on the ground.
Several international contact groups have previously tried to resolve the crisis, including in 2015, when the International Syria Support Group gathered all the main regional actors, including Iran, but was disbanded after the Syrian government retook the rebel stronghold of Aleppo.