French President Francois Hollande is facing both isolation and embarrassment after he hastened to adopt a bellicose attitude, promising to “punish” Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad following the alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus on August 21.
In a speech to French Ambassadors gathered in Paris on August 27, on the eve of the British parliamentary rejection of any hostilities against Syria, Mr. Hollande had said that the massacre would not go unpunished and promised to act. “The chemical massacre in Damascus cannot remain without a response. The international community cannot fail to react to the use of chemical weapons. France stands ready to punish those who took the appalling decision to gas innocent people,” he said.
Even the day after the British vote ruling out any military action, Mr. Hollande said there would be a coalition between France, the United States, the Arab League, the European Union and other nations such as Turkey so that Mr Assad’s “ignominious act” would receive the proper “riposte”.
But U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to obtain a vote of approval from the United States Congress pulled the rug from under the Mr. Hollande’s feet and left him with egg on his face.
“The President is in a position where he cannot step back nor can he go forward,” a senior diplomat told The Hindu. “Mali was a completely different kettle of fish altogether. France knows Africa, knows its former colony, the terrain so militarily it was not a difficult mission to accomplish. Besides, the action had U.N. approval and we had the support of almost everyone. With Syria, it’s a different scenario altogether. We simply do not have the power to act alone. We can only do it in tandem with the U.S. and we cannot assume a leadership role in the matter. President Hollande made a huge mistake in attempting to project French military and political power in such a manner,” the diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Within France, there is growing demand for a parliamentary vote on the question of whether France should engage in a military strike against Syria. A vote would be an unprecedented development in a country that has a distinctly presidential style of government and where the Executive clearly takes precedence over Parliament. The Constitution of the present Vth Republic, adopted in 1958, clearly states that in matters of Defence and Foreign policy, the Executive is supreme. Parliament cannot impose a vote on the President. But there is a rising clamour for a vote from The Greens (who are part of the ruling Socialist-led coalition), the extreme left and even certain members of the right wing opposition UMP party.
Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault will do his utmost to convince parliamentarians that an attack against Mr. Assad is necessary on moral grounds but he will also try to avert a vote in Parliament.
The Speaker of the National Assembly Claude Bartolone said it would be harmful for the office of the President were the Parliament to hold a vote. “We will be eroding the regalian powers of the President which are enshrined in the Constitution,” Mr. Bartolone said. A vote would set a dangerous precedent for the future.
Never in the history of the French Vth Republic has a parliamentary vote been expressed over the question of going to war. Parliament was informed under Article 35 of the Constitution (which allows the government three days in which to communicate news of any military action to the National Assembly) when France participated in the first Iraq war; the war against Serbia; and in the case of the war in Mali but there was never a vote.
French Prime Minister Jean Marc Ayrault on Monday held consultations with party leaders and parliamentarians. During those talks he promised to give them “irrefutable” proof that it was Bashar Al-Assad’s forces that launched the chemical arms attack that claimed over 1400 lives on August 21 on the chemical attacks.
However, French military and intelligence experts say that although it is easy to prove that a chemical attack took place, it is difficult to prove to any certitude who committed it. “It can be proved by deduction alone. Although everything points in the direction of President Assad there is no definite proof in the nature of a smoking gun,” a senior diplomatic source said.
The timetable is also making things terribly awkward for President Hollande. The fact that he cannot act alone means he has to wait for the U.S. vote on 9 September. But prior to that, there is the G20 summit in St. Petersburg. It is quite likely that Russia and China will gather greater support for the cause of non-intervention.
The French press has been extremely harsh on the President calling him incompetent, gauche, isolated and trapped. The left leaning weekly Le Nouvel Observateur used the headline “Trapped” to describe the President’s predicament. The right leaning Le Figaro wrote: “Like Barack Obama, Francois Hollande is trapped in the vortex of uncontrollable events. He is trapped within and isolated outside the country”
Left leaning Liberation wrote: “Francois Hollande is at pains to justify the war”. But, can he be the only quasi-monarchical head of state to resort to force without speaking to his people or receiving the approval of the nation’s elected body? the paper questioned.
The Catholic daily La Croix echoed these sentiments when it said: “The trap has closed around Western leaders who were very quick to announce their desire to punish Assad accused of using chemical weapons.”
The communist newspaper l’Humanité asked how it was possible for a single person to decide in the 21st century whether an entire nation should go to war.