Hollande ‘playing high risk game’ over Syria

With France looking isolated in its stance on Syria, and the government facing a lack of public or parliamentary support for action, as well as growing domestic issues, François Hollande is playing a high risk game by wanting to take on Assad, experts tell The Local.

Hollande 'playing high risk game' over Syria
President François Hollande: playing a risky game with Syria. Photo: Kenzo Tribouillard

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."

'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.”

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UPDATE: Is it possible to drive between Spain and the UK via France?

Travelling between Spain and the UK during the pandemic has been very difficult due to border closures, cancelled flights and quarantines, but what is the situation like now? Is it possible to drive between Spain and the UK via France?

Driving between Spain and UK
Photo: Bertsz / 67 images/ Pixabay

Several readers have asked about the restrictions and necessary documents and tests needed to drive to the UK and if it’s possible. Here’s what you need to know.

Travelling by car between the UK and Spain at the moment is possible, but not very easy. Although it’s a lot easier now than it was before the state of alarm ended, it will still involve PCR and/or antigen testing, quarantine, and lots of form-filling. This will mean extra expenses too. 

Spain and France have both updated their rules on travel as restrictions begin to ease. Here’s a look at what you need to know driving between the UK and Spain, via France right now.

Leaving Spain

Movement in Spain has become a lot easier since the end of the state of alarm on May 9th. This means that you can easily drive across regional borders without the need to prove specific reasons.

There may still be certain municipalities or health zones that you might need to avoid because their borders are still closed due to a high number of cases, but for the most part, your drive through Spain, up until the French border, will be easy.

Keep in mind that some regions still have certain restrictions in place such as when bars and restaurants are allowed to open and a few still maintain curfews, so you’ll need to check the rules of those regions you’re planning on driving through.

READ ALSO: UPDATED: What are the post state of alarm restrictions in each region in Spain?

Crossing the French border from Spain

Travel into France is allowed for any reason, including for tourism and family visits. This easing of restrictions was introduced on May 3rd, which saw France opening up both its regional and international borders.

According to the French embassy in Spain: “Entry into the metropolitan territory from a country in the European area is subject to the presentation, by travellers over eleven years of age, of a negative result of a PCR test, carried out within 72 hours prior to departure. This obligation applies to all modes of travel (arrival by road, rail, air or sea)”.

They also state that all travellers will have to present an affidavit/certificate of international travel, certifying that they do not have symptoms of Covid-19 infection and that they are not aware of having been in contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19 in the fourteen days prior to the trip.

“If you are over eleven years old, you agree that a biological test for SARS-CoV-2 will be carried out upon arrival on French territory” it continues.

The certificate can be downloaded from the website of the French Ministry. The supporting documents must be presented to the control authorities at the border.

The test must be carried out within 72 hours of departing for France and the antigen test is not accepted. You must take a PCR test, otherwise, you’ll be refused entry to France.

A Spanish police officer checks PCR coronavirus tests at the border between Spain and France. Photo: RAYMOND ROIG / AFP

You can drive straight through France, as there’s no quarantine requirement for those coming from inside the EU.

Note that France still has several restrictions in place, but they are gradually easing. As of May 19th, the curfew was extended to 9pm and bars and restaurants were allowed to operate outdoor services only. This means that you’ll need to stop driving and find somewhere to spend the night after the 9pm cut-off time.

If you have to travel past curfew for an essential reason, you will need an attestation permission form, which you can find HERE.

From June 9th, the curfew will be extended again until 11pm and the interiors of bars and restaurants will be allowed to re-open. 

Masks are compulsory in all indoor public spaces across the country, and also outdoors in most of the larger towns and cities. If you don’t wear one, you could face a fine of €135.

Entering the UK

On May 17th, the UK government lifted its ban on all non-essential travel abroad and replaced it with the traffic light system, assigning countries to red, amber or green lists, according to their health data.

France and Spain are currently on the amber list, as well as most other European countries, bar Portugal, which is on the green list.

READ ALSO: EXPLAINED: The European countries on England’s ‘amber’ travel list and what that means

This means that you must follow the amber list rules.

The UK government website states that if coming from an amber-list country, even if you’ve been vaccinated, you need to follow these rules before you enter England:

 On arrival in England you must:

  • quarantine at home or in the place you are staying for 10 days
  • take a COVID-19 test on or before day 2 and on or after day 8

Children aged 4 and under do not need to take the day 2 or day 8 test.

You may be able to end quarantine early if you pay for a private COVID-19 test through the Test to Release scheme.

The traffic light list only applies to England, but Scotland also has its own traffic-light system, which at the moment has the same green-list countries as England. It is thought that Wales and Northern Ireland are likely to adopt the traffic light system too.

If you’re entering the UK from an amber country, you can go for any reason. It doesn’t have to be an essential trip and entry is not limited to UK nationals or residents.

Find further information on UK travel rules HERE.

If in the future, France makes it onto the green list, then no quarantine will be necessary. Regardless, of this, a negative Covid-19 test is still needed to enter England, plus another test on or before day 2.

What about driving back to Spain?

The UK is still advising against travel to amber countries for leisure or tourism reasons, which France and Spain are both currently on.

This isn’t a travel ban, but the official stand can mean that your travel insurance won’t be valid, so check your policy before you travel.

JUNE UPDATE: From Monday, May 31st, France is tightening up entry requirements for arrivals from the UK, following in the footsteps of Germany and Austria as European countries become increasingly concerned about circulation of the ‘Indian variant’ of Covid in the UK.

So what’s the situation if you are just passing through?

If you are returning to your permanent residence in another EU or Schengen zone country then you can travel, as one of the listed ‘vital reasons’ is returning home. You will, however, need to show some proof of your residency, ideally a residency card.

If you are travelling for another reason you can travel through France, provided you spend less than 24 hours in the country.

The testing requirement applies to all arrivals, even if you are only passing through France, but if you spend less than 24 hours in the country you are not required to quarantine.

You will also need to check the rules in your destination country on arrivals from France. If you are entering France from an EU or Schengen zone country you will need to show a negative Covid test taken within the previous 72 hours and this must be a PCR test. You can enter France for any reason from an EU/Schengen country.

And yes, these rules all apply even to the fully vaccinated.

To find out more about the rules and exceptions for travel between France and the UK click the link below.

READ MORE: Spain-UK road travel – Can I transit through France despite the new Indian variant restrictions?

Currently, the Spanish government website states that only citizens and legal residents of the European Union, Schengen states, Andorra, Monaco, The Vatican and San Marino, as well as those who can demonstrate through documentary evidence an essential need to enter Spain, will be able to enter the country.

However, Spain recently announced that it would welcome British tourists into the country without a negative PCR test from May 24th. 


The website also states that “all overland travellers (excluding children under the age of 6 years old) who wish to enter Spain by road from France, are required to present a negative PCR or antigen test taken within 72 hours prior to entry”.

This applies to everyone, even if you have been vaccinated already.

Please note The Local is not able to give advice on individual cases. For more information on international travel to and from Spain, see the government’s website and check the restrictions in your destination country with the appropriate embassy.

READ ALSO: Reader question: Can I fly from the UK to Spain to visit family or my second home?