Hollande left waiting for US final decision

France was Obama’s only European ally in military action but has been left in limbo

In this May 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama meets with French President Francois Hollande. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File

In this May 2012 file photo, President Barack Obama meets with French President Francois Hollande. AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File




The words “Hollande Trapped” appeared in several front-page newspaper headlines to describe President Francois Hollande’s predicament yesterday, after President Barack Obama postponed a military strike against Syria until Congress can vote on the matter. The US says a chemical attack killed 1,429 people in the suburbs of Damascus on August 21st.

Mr Hollande will tomorrow convene a special session of the French national assembly to debate military intervention in Syria, but unlike the British parliament – which last week rejected Prime Minister David Cameron’s request for the authorisation of the use of force – and the US Congress, there will be no vote in Paris.

Article 35 of the French constitution requires the president to notify parliament “at the latest three days after the beginning of an intervention” and specifies that notification “may lead to a debate which is not followed by a vote”.

Yet Mr Hollande is coming under increasing pressure from the right-wing opposition, who accuse him of being a “lackey” to Mr Obama, and from his own left-wing allies, to hold a vote before a military strike in Syria. The right is also demanding France wait until the UN inspectors’ report, which could be several weeks.

No confidence
The only vote that could legally be held would be a vote of no confidence, which Mr Hollande would be sure to win. Former president François Mitterrand chose that procedure to justify French participation in the 1991 Gulf War against Iraq.

Following Mr Cameron’s defeat last week, Mr Hollande was billed as the US’s only European ally. Until Mr Obama’s announcement on Saturday, France was believed ready to fire cruise missiles from Rafale fighter aircraft. Late on Saturday, before he addressed the American people, Mr Obama told Mr Hollande that intervention was not imminent.

According to the Élysée, both leaders expressed “their ever-greater determination to act”. But Mr Hollande looked weak and isolated in the wake of the US comedown.

“The chemical massacre in Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished,” the French president had told Le Monde in an interview published the very day Mr Obama left him in the lurch.

Mr Hollande said the goal of intervention was not to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, but to “stop the regime committing the irreparable against its own population”. But he has failed to explain how “punishing” Mr Assad would end his crimes.

In an interview to be published in today’s Le Figaro, Mr Assad warned that “whoever works against the interests of Syria and its citizens is an enemy”. The Middle East is a “powder keg”, the Syrian dictator said. If there is military intervention, “Everyone will lose control of the situation when the powder keg explodes. Chaos and extremism will spread. There’s a risk of a regional war.”

Mr Hollande is in the awkward position of having to wait for the US Congress to vote before knowing whether France can intervene in Syria.

Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault invited the presidents of the national assembly and senate, parliamentary political groups and the foreign affairs and defence commissions to his office late yesterday, in the hope of quelling criticism of Mr Hollande’s Syrian policy. He presented a declassified report by the French intelligence agencies DGSE and DRM which blames the August 21st attack on the Assad regime.

The report, to be published online last night, notes the zones attacked were held by rebels, bordering zones held by the regime. It says the rebels do not have the means to carry out a “massive and co-ordinated” attack and alleges the regime staged an intense bombardment to destroy evidence.