There is an irony in the fact that America’s oldest ally, France, has become its newest best friend. An irony in that it is not really true; rather, it is a diplomatic accident, born of David Cameron’s hurried and unsuccessful attempt on 30 August in the UK Houses of Parliament to get backing for military action, and French President Hollande’s decision to virtually declare war on Syria without even consulting anyone else in Europe or in the French political class.
After the shock of the UK’s vote, even Obama decided to consult his own Congress to maintain legitimacy and regain time. He even referred to the UK’s role, but made no reference to France at all. As a result of both Cameron and Obama asking for parliamentary approval, the French have been left isolated internationally and in political chaos domestically.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius has announced today that France will now propose a UN Security Council resolution setting out conditions for the Syrian regime to place its chemical weapons under international control. France's change of rhetoric shows how it becomes increasingly isolated in relation with intervention in Syria.
There’s another irony – the period of the early American Republic John Kerry was referring to when France and America were allies, was an early example of catastrophic French miscalculation. France did back America, overstretched itself, and triggered the French Revolution of 1789. As Gustave Flaubert said, ‘irony takes nothing away from pathos’. President Hollande should pay attention to history.
French standing in international politics is always highest when it cautions against military might, and searches for a diplomatic position as the voice of old Europe counselling the New World. When 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. And both, incidentally, were right.
French policy over Syria has become an abysmal example of how to conduct international politics. The miscalculations are related to the presidential nature of the Fifth Republic itself. What the events of early September have shown is that as a result of the French President’s ability to act with greater impunity than his counterparts, he is in greater danger of making mistakes. He is weak because he is strong.
Yet another irony is that while both the UK and the US sought legitimation through democracy, the French President seems able to go to war under his own initiative. As a consequence, France has not appeared particularly democratic in comparison. As a result, all the war leader kudos gained from the Mali expedition in January 2013 has been squandered, and Hollande’s lack of foreign policy experience reaffirmed. He has made Sarkozy’s action over Libya in 2011 seem positively artful.
Whatever the French do now, the authority of the French presidency has been severely damaged and the Fifth Republic altered because, ultimately, Hollande can’t do what he wants. This was in part because the French President acted before he knew what the Americans were doing (and in spite of the noise, the French have no intention of acting alone), in part because public confidence in Hollande is so low that his legitimacy to act has vanished.
The French government was still waiting for the Americans, and now a UN Security Council resolution setting out conditions for the Syrian regime to place its chemical weapons under international control, while bombarding the French public with heart-breaking videos of suffering children (but which are not proof of anything). There is very little discussion of whether ‘punishing’ Assad (whatever that means) runs the huge risk of making the civil war in Syria worse, dragging Lebanon, Iran, and Israel into the conflict, alienating the Russians for decades, and having no plan at all if Assad falls, or if Assad doesn’t.
Ironically enough, the uncoordinated and confused international reaction to the appalling events in Syria has created a potential dynamic for a major non-military initiative supported by nearly everyone. If France could lead on that, it would show its real stature, because, on a good day, no one can lead Europe and embody its best traditions better than the French. For now the French can only talk about the one thing they are not doing, namely ''punishing'' Syria.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Analyst
Photo-Credit Wikipedia. Francois Hollande, France's President Photo