BEIRUT — In modern times, France has done far better diplomatically when it has advocated against impetuous military involvement in the internal affairs of other countries. French standing in international politics has been highest when its government was cautious about its military involvement, when it adopted the wise posture of Old World Europe, counseling the impetuous upstarts of the New World. When Charles de Gaulle told Kennedy, then Johnson, to stay out of Vietnam, his international standing skyrocketed. When Chirac told Bush not to go into Iraq, the same thing happened as history repeated. It was the threat of a UN Security Council veto by then-President Jacques Chirac, and French doubts about America’s evidence of weapons of mass destruction, that forced the Bush administration to seek a “coalition of the willing” outside the UN.
This was decidedly not the case with Syria, when France, led by an inexperienced president, decided to rush in and partner with its “oldest friend,” this time adopting a very different posture—essentially leading the European charge in “punishing” the Assad regime, as Francois Hollande, ignoring history, repeatedly vowed to do.
The French president did deservedly receive some credit for the January 2013 French military invasion of Mali, but it that case France had been asked by the Government of Mali to help put down an Islamist uprising, and Hollande had the support of the UN Security Council and the EU as well as the US and UK. The French public rewarded Hollande, perceived as weak in foreign policy, with a fleeting surge in his otherwise usually dismal approval ratings. These ratings have been low in large part due to French economic woes coupled with a public perception that he has been vacillating in domestic leadership.
When Mr Hollande cast himself in the role of western war leader for the second time in a year, his popularity shot up again, though not with the French public, but with the US Zionist lobby and the neocons in Congress. For his pains, Hollande found his country described as America’s “oldest ally” by US Secretary of State John Kerry, this after Britain’s parliament had already rejected military strikes on Syria. Suddenly his ability to project French military power—this time in Syria—depended on the outcome of a vote in the American Congress, and despite his bold words, President Holland found himself uncomfortably constrained, with his advisers, and his country, divided over what to do next.
When Kerry told Francois Hollande that France was America’s “oldest friend” he was referring to the period of the early American Republic—a time when France did back America, in 1776, against the British colonial power. But the nation overstretched itself militarily and economically, in the process triggering the French Revolution of 1789 that ended its own monarchy. As Gustave Flaubert, reputed to be France’s leading novelist of the second half of the nineteenth century, wrote, ‘irony takes nothing away from pathos’. In today’s terms, President Hollande would do well to pay more attention to history.
Syria, of course, presented a vastly more complex and difficult challenge than Mali. As a member of Hollande’s own party acknowledged, “people became very aware that Syria is not Mali. Suddenly there were some very difficult questions being discussed. Can we do it? Is it legitimate to do it? Will it achieve anything?”
French public opinion is running strongly against Hollande; a poll published recently in the conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro showed about two-thirds of the French opposed to military action against Syria as well as Iran. Growing demands that the president grant Parliament a vote on the matter were made last month amidst considerable speculation that he would lose if he did. In the end, he did not.
To complicate matters even more, there have been recent revelations of Hollande’s socialist administration granting hundreds of millions of dollars in tax exempt deals to Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries. Gulf royals have managed to secure, at bargain-basement rates, some high-priced, historic landmark-type properties, including the historic acreage opposite the Eiffel Tower, while more than 10 percent of the French population lives in sub-standard housing. Despite the socialist leader’s claim that all this will aid France in getting good deals for gas and oil—while providing a particularly huge windfall when Assad’s government is finally replaced with a pro-Western one—pressure is building on Holland to “come home to France” and focus on pressing domestic problems.
Another embarrassment came with the Russian proposal to encourage President Assad to give up his chemical weapons. Consultations between Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, dramatically sidelined Hollande and set Paris’ military invasion position against the diplomatic momentum. In reaction, Hollande, less than 24 hours after the Russian proposal, tried to regain the lead by presenting a separate resolution to the UN Security Council. The French draft was immediately dismissed by Moscow, as it appeared that the document suggested the authorization of the use of force under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter if Assad failed to comply with the chemical weapons transfer. Lavrov ridiculed that condition “unacceptable,” and in the end, France had zero substantive role in solving the conundrum over the dismantlement of Syria’s chemical arsenal. That accomplishment was achieved solely through US-Russian talks, with discrete input from Tehran.
Hollande has put himself into the position of being criticized for failing a basic test of French politics — protecting the country’s pride. Having impetuously agreed to join in a military action, France is now forced to wait on the sidelines of the Levant as Russia, America and Iran take the diplomatic lead, repudiating France’s stance. Some of Mr. Hollande’s critics now say he looks like a lackey.
France promises Israel to stay “tough” on Iran
Some observers are suggesting that the French president has decided to seek refuge from the fallout—fallout from what many in France regard as his political ineptitude—by linking himself with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. More than a few of the 200 members of the Chamber of Deputies, even from Hollande’s socialist party, are commenting on this while also pointing to a perceived humiliation dealt their country by way of Hollande’s failed efforts at being a ‘player’ in the Syria crisis.
On October 11, after the Israeli premier warned Paris of “succumbing to the charms of Tehran,”Hollande hastened to assure Netanyahu that France will remain “tough” with Iran on its nuclear program. It was in a television interview earlier that same day, on channel France24, that Netanyahu had urged France to be tough on Iran “with or without Rouhani’s smiles.” The comments apparently were prompted by an historic French-Iranian presidential handshake on the fringes of the United Nations General Assembly in New York last month—a handshake which the Israeli staff traveling with their prime minister criticized on the grounds that it would embolden the Islamic republic.
“If Iran really wanted to dismantle their nuclear weapons program, they’d come out with it,” Netanyahu told France24.
According to French daily Le Monde, Hollande told Netanyahu that he was flabbergasted by Obama’s hesitation to bomb Syria, and complained: “If Obama does not strike Iran, how can we believe he would help Israel in case of Iranian aggression?”
In the France 24 interview, Netanyahu also ignored a question as to why Israel did not “come out with it” with respect to its own nuclear and chemical weapons arsenals.
President Hollande ignored the same question.