In a rare show of unity, both President Hollande and his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, rounded on a cross-party delegation of French politicians who made an unauthorised visit to President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, with Mr Sarkozy reported to have branded them “four clowns”.
France closed its embassy and cut all diplomatic ties with Damascus in 2012 after Mr Assad’s violent crackdown on popular protests. The visit this week was the first, albeit unsolicited, rapprochement since then.
The group consisted of two MPs – Jacques Myard, of Mr Sarkozy’s UMP, and the ruling Socialist Party’s Gérard Bapt – as well as two senators, all members of a Franco-Syrian friendship group.
Mr Bapt said he was the only of the four not to meet Mr Assad. On Tuesday they met Mr Assad’s Deputy Foreign Minister as well as the Parliament Speaker, before having dinner with the Grand Mufti Hassoun, a regime supporter.
The group say they are “passing on intelligence” to the French government. According to Syria’s state news agency, they discussed “challenges facing Arab and European regions, particularly with regards to terrorism”. Their initiative comes off the back of shifting sands in some European politicians’ attitude towards the regime.
Speaking from Manila where he is on an official tour, Mr Hollande said the visit had “no mandate other than [the politicians’] own”.
Jacques Myard, of the UMP, retaliated to Mr Sarkozy’s comments saying a political settlement would only be reached with the participation of the Syrian president.