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Hollande 'playing high risk game' over Syria

AFP/The Local · 3 Sep 2013, 13:03

Published: 03 Sep 2013 13:03 GMT+02:00

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It's been a long few days for François Hollande.

This time last week, it looked like France would be part of a coalition with the US and UK to launch strikes against Syria in response to a deadly chemical attack in Damascus last month.

But a lot has changed in the last seven days. Last Thursday, the British parliament voted against intervention and over the weekend US President Barack Obama appearing to waver by seeking congressional approval before any military action.

This has left French President François Hollande in a quandary, which experts on France and the Middle East tell The Local could be a lose-lose situation for France and its head of state.

“After the withdrawal of the UK, Hollande is in a very difficult situation," Philippe Marlière, a professor of French politics at University College London told The Local.

"Instead of strengthening his hand, he has come out of the British vote looking weaker. It was not part of his plan to be in this situation. He thought France would be the third member of a coalition.” 

“I think for the time being, Hollande will have to wait and see, as the US makes a decision. I think he was gung-ho at the beginning because he probably miscalculated how it would end up."

Hollande is unlikely to decide that France will go it alone without US help, and even if Obama decides to lead the way, a skeptical public and dissenting parliament mean Hollande cannot count on domestic support for an attack on Damascus.

Domestic issues add to risk

One way Hollande could get some much-appreciated backing would be to risk giving the French parliament a vote on the question of whether to intervene.

He has so far resisted pressure to do so, but the latest murmurings from the government on Tuesday suggest a ballot at the end of Wednesday’s planned parliamentary debate is not out of the question.

“Considering the position he's in, it strikes me as logical to put the question to a vote,” says Marlière.

“With Britain out and the US in doubt, it would look like a nice compromise to ask parliament. But he won’t do that, because it’s not the way previous French presidents have handled these situations, and he would be afraid of looking weak.”

Another factor that makes French military intervention such a risk for Hollande and his standing in France is the number of contentious issues racking up at home.

"There are so many problems in France at the moment, socially and economically, and there are much more important issues for the French public that he needs to deal with. As well as this, he's not a popular president, which can be seen in opinion polls,” Marlière said.

“The public will see him trying to impose himself on the international scene as a world leader, but ignoring problems back home, he added.

Hollande, however, has been here before and showed he wasn't afraid to send troops into Mali. That was a much more straightforward case, though, given that France was a former colonial ruler and both the Malian government and the French public backed intervention.

'Syria will not be like Mali for Hollande'

For Mansouria Mohkefe, the head of the Middle East program at the French Institute of International Relations, Hollande is playing a dangerous game if he thinks Syria will have the same impact as Mali.

“If they intervene in Syria it will mean that under Hollande, France will have been involved in two wars in the same year,” Mohkefe told The Local.

“It’s a big risk when you play the same cards twice. Mali saved his standing in the polls, but it was only a short-term boost."

“The French public were relieved to discover that the president they thought was weak, and always wobbling, could actually decide quickly what to do.

“But trying to do the same thing again during a time of social problems, when there is high unemployment, will not work for the French public, especially as they will not understand why they didn’t go into Syria months ago, when this civil war broke out."

Story continues below…

'Reputation of France at stake'

For Mokhefe there is also much more at stake than Hollande’s standing at home.

If Paris fails to act, despite Hollande’s earlier insistence that Syria needs to be ‘punished’, then France’s standing on the international stage will be harmed.

On the other hand, if France joins an American-led assault on the Syrian regime without a clear plan of action, then Hollande will be left with some tough questions to answer.

“The delay in acting against Syria has already damaged France’s and Hollande’s reputation as well as that of other western governments, especially among Middle Eastern countries.

“Even now they don’t have a clear strategy. They do not know how they will go about things or what they will accomplish.

“We will see what comes out of these discussions with the US, but it doesn’t bode well for Hollande’s and France’s standing in the Middle East. The whole region is a mess.

“What will be left of France’s influence in that part of the world? It is already very weak. France has always benefited from a positive image in the Arab world, but it has diminished in recent months.”

AFP/The Local (ben.mcpartland@thelocal.com)

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