Hollande under fire from all sides for Syria stance

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 September, 2013, 3:10am

A French satirical television show this week portrayed President Francois Hollande left holding US President Barack Obama's coat while the American leader and President Vladimir Putin of Russia hold private talks. Hollande gullibly concludes he is playing a key role.

Later in the show, Les Guignols de L'Info, Hollande is seen interrupting a visit to a school to ask Obama's permission to use the bathroom.

If Hollande ever thought that his decision to stand steadfast alongside the United States in backing a retaliatory strike against Syria would give him new stature on the global stage, the last week has been a sharp shock.

Public opinion is running strongly against him; a poll published at the weekend in the conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro showed about two-thirds of the French opposed to military action against Syria. There are growing demands that he grant Parliament a vote on the matter.

The White House is doing its best to buttress Hollande - US Secretary of State John Kerry, on a visit this weekend, used a televised appearance to make the case, in French, that failure to act would be akin to the Munich Agreement of 1938, in which Britain and France sought to appease Hitler. But the French president is learning, like British leaders before him, that close alignment with Washington carries as much risk of looking weak as opportunity to look strong.

Hollande is facing an avalanche of sometimes contradictory criticism from left and right: that he is acting rashly in committing France to military action; that he is being too timid in awaiting the go-ahead from the United States and the United Nations; that he needs to heed public and parliamentary opinion and that he needs to assert the broad powers of the French president to employ the armed forces without parliamentary approval.

Perhaps most of all, he is being criticised for failing a basic test of French politics - protecting the country's pride. France is now forced to wait on the sidelines while Congress debates whether to give its approval.

To some degree, Hollande's decision to stand with the United States and Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain in calling for a military strike against Syria to "punish" the government of Bashar al-Assad for a chemical weapons attack is well in line with French tradition. But for Hollande, as for Obama and Cameron, almost nothing on this issue has unfolded smoothly.

Under pressure to win more support from other European countries, Hollande has now said any action should await the completion of a report by UN weapons inspectors on the apparent gas attacks which according to US intelligence killed more than 1,400 people.

Hollande now faces a Parliament empowered by public opinion, with some members calling for a vote on the issue.