Paris attacks will force Hollande into bed with Assad

The Paris attacks could have the effect of forcing Hollande to decide who is public enemy number one, leaving number two to one side for the moment. (AFP)

The Paris attacks could have the effect of forcing Hollande to decide who is public enemy number one, leaving number two to one side for the moment. (AFP)


Only a few days before the Paris attacks, a book was published in France called The President’s Wars.

It describes President François Hollande’s transformation, during the three years he has been in power, from a career politician known for accommodating everyone else’s view before forming an opinion into the “commander-in-chief” ordering French troops to Central and West Africa and French jets to bomb jihadis in Iraq and Syria.

The author, David Revault d’Allonnes, a political correspondent for Le Monde, calls this metamorphosis “Hollande’s political mystery”: a man known for his dislike of confrontation and tough decisions but who showed no hesitation in sending guided missiles or special forces to eliminate a “target” in faraway lands.

This unpopular president, who has disappointed supporters and is scoffed at by opponents for failing to solve France’s economic woes, managed to incarnate and reassure a wounded nation after the Charlie Hebdo attack last January.

Now, again, he appears as a determined leader facing the fears of his compatriots and promising an uncompromising response.

But in recent months there has been a growing unease in France, including from within Hollande’s own camp, with some of his core diplomatic and military choices. A growing number of voices are calling for alternatives.

Even as the country plunged into mourning on Friday and the overall political emotion was one of national unity, these voices quickly spoke out again, with former president Nicolas Sarkozy, now head of the conservative opposition Les Républicains, calling for “major changes” in France’s foreign and security policy.

Hollande’s Syria strategy is central to the debate.
France was the first, and the quickest, back in 2012, to recognise the opposition Syrian National Coalition as the “unique representative” of the Syrian people, thus breaking with Bashar al-Assad’s government.

Since then, this “moderate” opposition has not delivered, and has become more and more marginalised by the growing presence and strength of jihadi groups, including the Islamic State, which claimed responsibility for the Paris attacks.

Worse for Hollande, his many calls for Assad’s removal from power, or even “elimination”, as French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius once said, have suffered several setbacks, isolating France as the diplomatic scene shifted.

The first setback came in August 2013 after the chemical weapons attack by Syrian government forces that crossed the “red lines” established by United States President Barack Obama. French planes were preparing for take off in a “punishment” expedition to Syria when the British Parliament voted against military action, followed by Obama’s decision to consult Congress, in effect killing any quick response.

Hollande felt betrayed and was left alone in confronting Assad’s army. Since then, Syria’s bloody civil war has continued for another two years, its people becoming refugees in neighbouring countries and beyond.

The second setback came with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to enter the Syrian war game in a big way, sending his air force and military advisers in support of Assad’s army. This took Paris and Washington by surprise and it has been a game-changer.

Until Friday, the French government was still insisting on Assad’s departure as a precondition for any political settlement in Syria, putting the Syrian president on a par with the Islamic State in blame for the country’s tragedy. But France has become more and more isolated in this stand, with Russia and Iran increasingly pushing their agenda. The US listened. Only Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have applauded the French attitude, rewarding it with big arms deals.

Hollande’s Syria strategy was caught between Putin’s offensive and Obama’s reluctance. He had chosen the high moral ground, refusing to associate either with a brutal regime or a bloody opposition, but this was not necessarily the most practical option in a situation that involves choosing the least bad option rather than the best one.

Have the Paris attacks changed the rules of the game? Both Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, proclaimed in martial words that the enemy is the Islamic State, and that France’s response would be merciless. Has the shift been made from having two enemies to one?

In recent months, several voices in France, including former Socialist foreign minister Hubert Védrine, have made the analogy with the World War II choice by democratic countries to ally with Stalin against Hitler. Sarkozy, who has ambitions to return to power in the 2017 presidential elections, yesterday advocated a shift in France’s foreign policy, only days after visiting Moscow and being photographed smiling with Putin.

The Paris attacks could have the effect of forcing Hollande to decide who is public enemy number one, leaving number two to one side for the moment. If he makes the subtle shift that many recommend, including military chiefs who believe the French army is overstretched, it will not reduce France’s involvement in the Middle East crisis, but it will reduce its autonomy. Hollande’s singular path may have been derailed by the Paris killers. – © Guardian News & Media 2015

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