François Hollande – who has to date found himself in the unusual position for a French president of being the staunchest backer of proposed American military action – appeared today to back away from immediate air strikes against Syria by talking of the importance of a “political solution” to the crisis.
After a meeting at the Elysée Palace with Ahmad al-Jarba, the leader of the Western-backed opposition group Syrian National Coalition, Mr Hollande also warned that peace would be impossible if the international community failed to “put an end” to “the escalation of violence” such as last week’s alleged use of chemical weapons against civilians in a Damascus suburb.
Overall, however, Mr Hollande’s remarks were more cautious than his previous statement on Tuesday when he said that France was “ready to punish those who took the iniquitous decision to gas innocent people”. It appears that the President has been obliged to touch the brake to stay in line with hesitations in the United States and with the parliamentary procedure started in the UK.
“Everything must be done to find a political solution but it will not arrive unless the Coalition is capable of acting as an alternative (government),” he said. “We will not get there unless the international community puts an end to this escalation of violence of which this chemical massacre is only one example.”
His remarks appeared to disappoint Mr Jarba, who called for “a punitive strike against the regime”.
France, like Britain, is said to have told the United States that it is ready to play an auxiliary role in any missiles or air strikes against Syria. French officials said that Mr Hollande is personally convinced that the gas attack near Damascus was carried out by the Assad regime.
The French defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said today that the armed forces were ready to “respond to the requests and the decisions of the President once he reaches that point”. A French anti-aircraft frigate moved into the eastern Mediterranean in recent days.
President Hollande has the power to engage French forces without parliamentary approval so long as the action does not last longer than four months. Timing is, however, critical. Diplomats suggest that Mr Hollande would be reluctant to act with the US alone. Any western intervention may, therefore, have to wait until the British parliamentary procedure is completed.
French public opinion is heavily weighted against any military action in Syria – even one approved by the United Nations Security Council. Almost all senior political figures on the left and the right have approved Mr Hollande’s hints that France is ready to act with the US and the UK. The only exception is the former centre-right Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, who led France’s opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The French position is markedly different to that of 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”.
According to an IFOP poll, 59 per cent of French voters oppose French involvement in an air-strike in Syria. The poll found that UN action would be supported by 55 per cent of French people – so long as the French military does not take part.