Hollande considers parliamentary vote on military intervention in Syria

Discord over Syria is provoking a constitutional crisis in France

France’s president Francois Hollande (C) stands on the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris on Tuesday. Mr Hollande had assumed airstrikes against Syria would be under way before today’s parliamentary debate on the issue. Photograph:  Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

France’s president Francois Hollande (C) stands on the steps of the Elysee Palace in Paris on Tuesday. Mr Hollande had assumed airstrikes against Syria would be under way before today’s parliamentary debate on the issue. Photograph: Philippe Wojazer/Reuters

 

A parliamentary vote on French military intervention in Syria may be the only way for French president François Hollande to defuse the political crisis created by Britain’s rejection of intervention and the postponement of US action pending congressional approval.

The national assembly will hold a debate on Syria this afternoon, but a French vote will not follow until next week, if then. Mr Hollande had assumed that air strikes against Syria would be under way before today’s session.

The majority socialists and opposition conservatives are each so divided on both questions – the necessity of a vote, and intervention – that both parliamentary groups will convene before the 4pm debate in the hope of reaching a modicum of internal consensus.

A dozen right-wing deputies will boycott the debate in protest at the absence of an immediate vote.

Discord over Syria is approaching a constitutional crisis, since various articles allow a debate without a vote, a vote of no confidence or a debate followed by a vote which would not engage the government’s responsibility, if the president so wishes.


Change of mind
Mr Hollande is reportedly in the process of changing his mind. A vote “is not a taboo subject for François Hollande”, minister for parliamentary relations Alain Vidalies said, adding that it was “obvious” that Mr Hollande would “address himself to the French” regarding the Syrian crisis.

“It’s up to the president of the republic to decide if a vote, which is not required by our constitution, should take place,” French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said after meeting elected officials on Monday night.

It would be a blow to the image of French democracy if the US and Britain allowed elected representatives to decide the issue, while France did not.

Socialists have always criticised the monarchical powers which Charles de Gaulle bequeathed to the president of the fifth republic. And like US president Barack Obama, Mr Hollande could use parliamentary approval to spread responsibility if a Syrian intervention went horribly wrong.

France now looks likely to hold not one but two parliamentary debates – today, and a second debate before voting.

“We’re not going to demand a vote on Wednesday, when the US Congress will not have voted and the G20 meeting in St Petersburg will not have taken place,” said Thierry Mandon, spokesman for the socialist group in the national assembly. “What would we vote on? To go to war with Syria on our own?”

“That’s equivalent to letting the US Congress decide for the French people,” said conservative deputy Éric Woerth.

While Mr Hollande waits, the dispute grows vicious. Harlem Désir, head of the socialist party, outraged opponents of intervention when he compared them to appeasers in the face of Nazi Germany.


No UN ‘green light’
Former conservative prime minister Alain Juppé said a French military intervention “would be the first time, compared to what happened in the Ivory Coast, Libya or Mali, that France intervened without a green light from the United Nations”.

A petition against intervention, addressed to parliamentarians in today’s debate and published on the Mediapart website by a group of French intellectuals, says that “an action outside the UN framework, in the name of a special ‘mission’ by western powers, would discredit the UN and diminish the credibility of international law”.

Advocates of intervention say clinging to international legitimacy gives succour to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.