France is constrained and deeply divided over military action in Syria
BEFORE his election last year as French president, François Hollande had no foreign-policy experience. He had never met Barack Obama. And he led a party which invented the term “hyperpower” to deplore American military might.
Today Mr Hollande has cast himself as a war leader for the second time in a year, after the French-led military intervention to evict Islamist rebels in Mali in January. He finds his country described as America’s “oldest ally” by the American secretary of state, after Britain’s parliament rejected military strikes against Syria. And yet his ability to project French military power in this case depends on the outcome of a vote in the American Congress. After bold words, France is finding itself uncomfortably constrained, and politically divided over what to do next.
For the past year France has been particularly outspoken about Syria. The French government was the first to recognise the Syrian opposition coalition. Laurent Fabius, the foreign minister, led calls for the use of force against those responsible for the chemical attacks of August 21st. Before the British vote, Mr Hollande gave a bellicose speech, declaring that France was “ready to punish” those who “took the decision to gas innocents”. On September 2nd the government published a nine-page intelligence report, which concluded that only the Assad regime could have been responsible. After the British vote and Mr Obama’s decision to seek authorisation from Congress, Mr Hollande reaffirmed France’s determination to take action against the regime.
The French president enjoys sweeping powers to order such military action. Although parliament was recalled for a debate on Syria on September 4th, no vote was held, and Mr Hollande is not constitutionally obliged to seek authorisation before launching strikes. When he first ordered French fighter jets to bomb rebels in Mali, for instance, he did not request approval from parliament. A vote came only after a few months, as it must under the constitution if a military engagement abroad is extended.
Yet Mr Obama’s decision to go to Congress has altered the equation. In Mali French interests were directly at stake, time was short, a political consensus backed intervention, and the Malian government had asked France for help. Over Syria, by contrast, the sense of urgency has slipped, political opinion is divided and the French do not see an immediate threat to their security. Polls show that between 59% and 64% of those surveyed are against military action.
Politicians are also split. Most of the Socialists are in favour, although some Greens, whose party sits in government, and the far left, which does not, are against. The opposition UMP is wary. Many politicians are uncomfortable with the idea of acting without UN backing. Memories of the consequences of an American-led intervention in Iraq without UN approval remain fresh. It was the threat of a UN Security Council veto by Jacques Chirac, then president, and France’s doubts about American evidence of weapons of mass destruction, that forced the Americans to seek a coalition outside the UN. “There is no Iraq syndrome in France in the sense that we distrust our government,” says François Heisbourg of the Foundation for Strategic Research. “But people do fear manipulation by foreign intelligence, which is why the French report is essential.”
As it turned out, France was on the right side of history over Iraq. This, and its Gaullist tradition of fierce independence make the French feel uncomfortable at having to wait for American approval in order to take military action. France should not “have to wait with its arms folded for a vote in the American Congress,” said Christian Jacob, the UMP’s parliamentary leader. Jean-François Copé, the UMP leader, warned Mr Hollande not to become “the American president’s trailer”.
Political pressure is now mounting for the French parliament to organise a vote at a fresh session, if the American Congress votes yes. Mr Hollande has made it clear that France will not act alone otherwise. A vote would be a risk for Mr Hollande: the UMP threatened not to back strikes without UN support. But he may not be able to resist calls for a separate parliamentary vote. Polls suggest that most of the public want such a vote. Alain Juppé, a former prime minister, has argued that it could be a means of giving strikes democratic legitimacy in the absence of UN backing. The idea has a political precedent, too. In 2003 a young opposition Socialist leader called for a parliamentary vote over intervention in Iraq. His name? François Hollande.
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