French lawmakers split over Syria action

French lawmakers showed deep divisions over what action to take in Syria during a parliamentary debate on Wednesday with opposition leaders saying they could not support strikes without UN approval. However no vote took place in the Assembly.

French lawmakers split over Syria action
France's National Assembly clearly divided over what action to take over Syria. Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP

French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault urged lawmakers on Wednesday to back military action against the Syrian regime in response to "the most massive and terrifying use" of chemical weapons this

The debate came as Syria's deputy foreign minister Faisal Muqdad ridiculed France as an American stooge.

"It's shameful that the French president… says 'if Congress approves, I go to war, otherwise I won't go', as if the French government had no say in the matter," Muqdad said in an exclusive interview with AFP.

Opening a fiery debate on France's reaction to the alleged deadly gas attack, Ayrault said it was "undeniable" that the regime had used chemical weapons to kill up to 1,500 people in the August 21 assault near Damascus.

"To not react would put peace and security in the entire region in danger," Ayrault said. "What message would we send to other regimes? And I'm thinking here, like you, of Iran and North Korea."

INTERVIEW: UK's ambassador to Paris insists the French understand Britain's Syria pull-out 

He also said not reacting militarily would "close the door on a political solution" to the conflict.

President Francois Hollande's Socialists, who enjoy a majority in the National Assembly, are largely supportive of strikes. But other leading parliamentary factions voiced opposition, including the main opposition
right-wing UMP.

The UMP said it would not support military action without the backing of the United Nations or a broad international coalition.

"Can France seriously, without any European ally, leap head down into an adventure of this sort?" asked Christian Jacob, the head of the UMP's faction in the National Assembly. "We don't think so."

Andre Chassaigne, the head of the Left Front coalition, said he was "vigorously opposed" to intervention as it would be "illegal, unjustified and unfounded in terms of international law."

No vote was to take place after the debate, as Hollande does not need parliamentary approval to launch military action.

But amid widespread scepticism in France over military strikes, the government has launched a major effort to bolster support.

Ayrault said there was "no question" of France putting troops on the ground in Syria but that some form of military reaction was essential.

"Our message is clear: using chemical weapons is unacceptable. We want to both punish and dissuade," he said, calling last month's attack "the most massive and terrifying use of chemical weapons at the beginning of this century".

Many French lawmakers, including some Socialists, are clamouring for a full vote on military action. A poll on the eve of the debate also showed nearly three quarters of the French wanting parliament to have a say.

Hollande's government has not ruled out a vote, but he will be keen to avoid an embarrassing rejection of military strikes like the one suffered last week by British Prime Minister David Cameron.

France has repeatedly vowed to "punish" Assad for the alleged chemical weapons attack and this week released an intelligence report pinning the blame for the assault on the regime.

The French debate comes as US President Barack Obama lobbies Congress to back US strikes when it returns from its summer break on Monday.

France has emerged as the key US ally in taking action against Assad's regime, after Britain's House of Commons rejected military action.

The divisions in France over action in Syria are in sharp contrast to the widespread support Hollande enjoyed when he launched a military intervention in Mali earlier this year.

The Mali operation, which saw French troops push back Islamist rebels who had seized the west African country's vast desert north, was launched without any thought of holding a parliamentary vote. Four months later, its continuation was backed without any votes against.

The Mali intervention was widely backed by the public however, unlike a military intervention in Syria, which a recent poll showed is opposed by 64 percent of the French.

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Minister’s fears over ‘300’ French Islamists in Syria

France's interior minister revealed on Thursday that hundreds of homegrown Islamist militants were signing up to fight in Syria and warned they could pose a security threat if and when they return home.

Minister's fears over '300' French Islamists in Syria
Members of the jihadist group Al-Nusra Front, bearing the flag of Al-Qaeda in Syria where hundreds of French nationals have benn fighting. Photo: Guillaume Briquet/AFP

More than 300 French nationals or residents are either currently fighting in Syria's civil war, planning to go and fight or have recently returned from there, the minister, Manuel Valls, told France Inter radio.

Most of them were young men, often with a delinquent past, who had become radicalised, he said.

"This is a phenomenon which worries me because they represent a potential danger when they return to our soil," Valls said. "We have to be extremely attentive."

France, which has the largest Muslim population in western Europe, has increased its monitoring of Islamic radicals since  Al-Qaeda-inspired gunman Mohamed Merah killed seven people in and around the southwestern city of Toulouse last year.

It subsequently emerged that Merah had spent time in Pakistan and Afghanistan and that French intelligence had been aware of his contacts with militants in those two countries.

According to British defence consultancy IHS Jane's, there are up to 10,000 jihadists from all over the world currently fighting in Syria on the side of rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, whose regime they want to replace with an Islamic state.

Experts in counter-terrorism fear that a chemical weapons attack near Damascus on August 21 could inspire more radicals to embark on jihad, or holy war, in Syria, increasing the numbers of a new generation of battle-hardened militants capable of wreaking havoc when they return to their home countries.

"If they are not able to set up an Islamic state in Syria, they'll come back disappointed," Marc Trevidic, France's top anti-terrorism judge, was quoted as saying earlier this week.

At least one French national has died fighting in Syria – a 22-year-old white convert to Islam from Toulouse only identified as Jean-Daniel, who was killed in a clash with government forces in August.

Valls has previously warned that there are "several dozen, perhaps several hundred, potential Merahs in our country" and described their presence as a ticking time bomb

In October 2012, police shot dead the alleged ringleader of an Islamist cell suspected of carrying out a grenade attack on a Jewish grocery store in a Paris suburb the previous month.

A prosecutor branded that homegrown group of Islamist extremists as the biggest terror threat the country had faced since the Algerian-based GIA carried out a string of deadly bombings in the 1990s.

Islamist groups threatened to stage attacks in France as well as on French targets after Paris intervened in Mali early this year in reaction to advances made by Islamist groups who had seized control of the north of the country.

Citing intelligence reports, Valls said there were more than 130 French nationals or residents currently fighting in Syria, about 50 who had returned home, some 40 who were in transit areas and around a 100 who were likely to travel to Syria.