Speaking on Monday in Saudi Arabia, Jacques Chirac said he was against any international sanctions on the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is now lead by the resistance group Hamas.

"I know well that there are some who envisage sanctions," he said

"For my part, I am hostile to sanctions in general and in this case in particular ... basically the Palestinian people would bear the brunt of it."

Hamas won an election landslide in January, prompting Israel, the US and the European Union, which includes France, to threaten to withhold funding unless Hamas renounces its armed struggle and recognises Israel.

An EU official has reiterated that the EU will stop payments to the Palestinian Authority once Hamas takes power unless those conditions are met.

Chirac said: "I hope the discussions with Hamas that some parties have begun can lead to this positive result. To be honest, I don't doubt it will, since Hamas has to assume its responsibilities."

Last week, a Hamas delegation visited Russia in the hope of gaining some international standing.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia have already snubbed US efforts to persuade them to isolate Hamas during a regional visit by Condoleezza Rice, the secretary of state.

Work starts

Also on Monday, the new Palestinian parliament began its first working session since Hamas won election, with many members who remain in Israeli jails represented by photographs.

Ismail Haniya (2nd L) at the
Palestinian legislative council

Aziz Dwaik, the new speaker of the legislative council, opened proceedings in front of 112 of the 132 members of parliament. Many members took part via video-link from the parliament's regional base in Gaza City because of Israeli-imposed travel restrictions.

Dwaik said: "In the name of God and the Palestinian people, I declare that the first session of the legislative council is open.

"The Palestinian people will be our leaders and we will want to follow the path of the great Palestinian people who have showed us how to resist. Our main guide will be the teachings of God and of Muhammad."

Absent members

Large photographs were placed on the parliament's benches of the 13 deputies, nine of whom are Hamas members, who are in jail in Israel. Among the first topics for debate was how to register their votes.

Also on the order paper were proposals for a symbolic cut in the size of MPs' salaries, currently around $3000 a month.

Ismail Haniya, Hamas's prime minister-delegate, has been formally asked by Mahmoud Abbas, the president, to form a new government which is likely to be agreed by the end of the month.

The parliament will not vote on any substantive government proposals in its first days.

Hamas won 74 of the 132 seats, trouncing Abbas's previously dominant Fatah movement, which won 45.

Hamas has invited Fatah into a coalition but many members of the faction are thought to be cool about rejoining the ranks of government, instead preferring to watch how Hamas copes with a host of problems.