President Bashar al-Assad has issued a decree authorising a multi-party political system in Syria, a day after the UN Security Council issued a statement condemning the regime's use of force against protesters.
The state-controlled SANA news agency reported that the decree, issued on Thursday, was aimed at "activating the political life and citizens' participation".
SANA said a party established under the new law would have to show commitment to the constitution, principles of democracy and respect liberties and international declarations of human rights.
It also said a party cannot be founded on a "religious, tribal, regional, denominational, or profession-related basis" or be a "branch of or affiliated to a non-Syrian party or political organisation".
Syria has effectively been a one-party state since 1963 and the constitution stipulates that the Baath Party is "the leader of state and society".
The Syrian government adopted a draft law on political pluralism last month, but the law still needed the parliament's approval. Following the presidential decree, the law is effective immediately.
The president also issued a decree on a new general elections law.
Reacting to the political parties decree, France described it as a "provocation", and said al-Assad should instead stop his deadly crackdown on democracy protests.
"In a manner that lacks credibility... the Syrian regime recently announced the authorisation of multi-party politics. This is almost a provocation," Alain Juppe, the foreign minister, told French radio.
He said that "what we want is an end to the violence against the civilian population which is only defending its rights".
The decree came hours after the UN Security Council stepped up pressure on Syria's rulers by condemning the bloody crackdown and saying those responsible should be held accountable.
The council was unable to agree on a resolution, but settled on a less-binding statement condemning "the widespread violations of human rights and the use of force against civilians by the Syrian authorities".
In-depth coverage of escalating violence across Syria
Russia and China had been opposed to a resolution, which had been discussed for months. Following changes in the text, Russia lifted its objections and its UN envoy, Vitaly Churkin, called the new version "balanced".
Syria's neighbour, Lebanon, where Syrian influence is strong, disassociated itself from the statement, a rare but not unprecedented move that still allowed the statement to pass.
Caroline Ziade, the Lebanese envoy, told the council the statement "does not help in addressing the current situation in Syria".
According to the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 1,629 civilians and 374 members of the security forces have been killed since pro-democracy protests erupted on March 15.
More deaths reported
Abdul-Karim Rihawi, the Damascus-based chief of the Syrian Human Rights League, said six protesters were shot dead on Wednesday night.
He said two were killed in the Damascus district of Midan, three in the southern village of Nawa and one in the ancient town of Palmyra.
Syrian troops have tightened their siege on the central city of Hama since Sunday, sending residents fleeing for their lives.
Rami Abdul-Rahman, who heads the London-based Observatory for Human Rights, said about 1,000 families have fled Hama in the past two days, most of them to the village of Mashtal Hilu west of Hama and Salamieh to the east.
He said military operations were also under way in the central city of Homs, where heavy machine guns and automatic gunfire was heard throughout the night in the Bab Sbaa and Qalaa districts. At least 27 people have been arrested in security raids, he said.