From ‘cheese-eating surrender monkeys’ to America's new best friends? François Hollande talks tough on Syria after UK backs down
John Lichfield has been The Independent's man in Paris since 1997, covering French news. Before that, he was the paper's Foreign Editor and he has also worked in Brussels and Washington. In 1999, he was the UK press Awards Foreign Reporter of the year.
Friday 30 August 2013
France is ready to join the United States in a retaliatory strike against Syria even though Britain has pulled out, President François Hollande said today.
"The chemical massacre in Damascus cannot go unpunished," Mr Hollande told Le Monde, "Otherwise, we would be risking an escalation which would make the use of such weapons commonplace and threaten other countries."
"There are few countries which have the capacity to inflict a punishment by appropriate means. France is one of them. We are ready. We will decide our position in close consultation with our allies."
Mr Hollande was asked if France's would act despite the House of Commons vote on Thursday night refusing to approve the principle of a British strike on Syria.
He replied: " Yes. Every country has a sovereign right to take part or not to take part. That applies to the United Kingdom but also to France."
It is understood, however, that Paris is reluctant to launch a punitive strike on Syria until the UN inspectors in the country have reported back. It would also prefer the UN security council to discuss the question before any western attack, even if a Russian veto is inevitable.
Mr Hollande said a "coalition" in favour of punitive action should be formed if the security council is "prevented" from acting. This could, he said, include political support from a range of European and Arab nations, even though they might not join the military action.
The French president said that he expected to have a lengthy telephone conversation with the US President Barak Obama today.
A Franco-American strike, without UK support, would represent a remarkable reversal of roles compared to 10 years ago when the government of President Jacques Chirac was derided by certain figures for its opposition to the Iraq invasion. The then US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused France of representing “ old Europe” and certain elements of the American press dismissed French officials as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys”.
A military mission involving France and the US alone would be the first bilateral military action by the two countries since the battle of Yorktown which successfully concluded the revolution of the American colonies against Britain in 1781.
Asked if France had proof that the Assad regime was responsible for the gas attack on civilians in a Damascus suburb on 21 August, Mr Hollande said: "France has a whole bundle of evidence which points to the responsibility of the regime…It is known that the opposition has no such weapons and the stocks are controlled by Bachar Assad. The suburb which was attacked was neither an accident nor a mistake. It a key place for controlling routes into Damascus."
Asked if a western strike on Syria would be legal, Mr Hollande replied : "The 1925 Protocol bans chemical weapons. As the (UN Secretary General) Ban Ki-moon, said, gassing the civilian population is a crime against humanity."
Video: Osborne on Syria vote
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