Al-Assad is expected to hold his first talks with Michel Sleiman, the Lebanese president, since Sleiman was elected in May, ending Lebanon's worst political crisis since the 1975-1990 civil war.

Al-Assad and Sleiman could announce a breakthrough in talks on establishing diplomatic relations at the meeting that is expected to be attended by Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa AlT hani, Qatar's emir, whose country brokered the power-sharing deal that ended the country's crisis.

However, a meeting between al-Assad and Ehud Olmert, Israel's prime minister, has been ruled out.

Sarkozy is expected to raise human rights issues during his one-on-one talks with Assad on Saturday and try to advance the Israeli-Syrian peace process, aides said.

Constructive role

Despite concerns over Syria's rights record, France sees Assad's willingness to take part in the new Mediterranean forum and its indirect talks with Israel as signs that Damascus is seeking a more constructive role in the Middle East.

While the United States continues to view Syria as a "terror state", France under Sarkozy has moved to renew high-level ties that suffered as a result of the 2005 assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanese ex-premier, who was a personal friend of Chirac.

Israel and Syria, which technically remain at war since the creation of the Jewish state in 1948, have held three rounds of indirect talks through Turkey since March, raising peace prospects after an eight-year break.

The former president cut off all high-level contacts with Syria, a former French colony, after repeatedly accusing Damascus of having a hand in al-Hariri's assassination. Syria has denied the claims.

Sarkozy has invited leaders from 44 countries, including Arab nations and Israel, for the founding summit of the union aimed at boosting co-operation between EU and bordering Mediterranean states.

France and the US have called on Lebanon and Syria to establish full diplomatic relations to bolster stability after Damascus pulled its troops out of Lebanon in 2005, ending nearly three decades of military presence.

After the election in May of Lebanon's Sleiman under a  power-sharing deal, Sarkozy moved to reward Assad by renewing high-level contacts with Syria.

On Monday, the Syrian leader will join about a dozen leaders to watch the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs Elysees during France's national celebrations.

However France's Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister, last month commented that he was "not particularly pleased" by al-Assad's presence at the July 14 national fete.

While al-Assad will be applauding troops marching in the Bastille Day parade, Chirac will be conspicuous by his absence. 

Officials have denied the former president's decision to stay away was linked to al-Assad.

Al-Assad's visit comes during France's presidency of the 27-nation European Union.