Speaking during an interview in the gardens of the presidential palace on Bastille Day, he said: "Israel's military offensive against Lebanon is totally disproportionate. Is destroying Lebanon the ultimate goal?

"One could ask if today there is not a sort of will to destroy Lebanon, its equipment, its roads, and its communication."

The US has reacted to the increase in violence with a telephone call to the Lebanese leadership on Friday.

The call came a day after the bombardment of Beirut's international airport by Israeli forces in retaliation for the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers by Hezbollah.

Fuad Saniora, the Lebanese prime minister, briefed the US president on the gravity of the situation and urged him to place pressure on Israel to halt its aggression.

Although voicing his support, George Bush's response fell short of supporting a Lebanese government demand to arrive at a total ceasefire and lift the blockade imposed on it.

Vatican reaction

Meanwhile, the Vatican said the Israeli strikes were "an attack" on a sovereign and free nation.

Cardinal Angelo Sodano, the Vatican secretary of state, said Pope Benedict and his aides were worried that the developments in the Middle East would degenerate into "a conflict with international repercussions".

Chirac also said that he suspected other factors had contributed to the recent escalation and pointed to Syria as a likely candidate.

"I have the feeling, if not the conviction, that Hamas and Hezbollah wouldn't have taken the initiatives alone," he said.