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France stands firm on Syria despite shock UK vote

AFP file photo.

French President François Hollande said Friday that the UK parliamentary vote against taking military action in Syria would not affect France’s will to act alongside the United States in “punishing“ Syria for an alleged chemical weapons attack.


France has not changed its position on a possible military intervention in Syria, President François Hollande said on Friday, following a vote in Britain’s parliament against the motion.

Hollande told French daily Le Monde in an interview that he supported taking “firm” punitive action in response to a Syrian chemical weapon attack he said had caused “irreparable” harm, adding that he would work closely with France’s allies to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

Asked if France could take action without Britain, Hollande replied: “Yes. Each country is sovereign to participate or not in an operation. That is valid for Britain as it is for France.”

Hollande in Le Monde: "The Damascus massacre mustn't go unpunished".
Hollande in Le Monde: "The Damascus massacre mustn't go unpunished".

Unlike British Prime Minister David Cameron – who lost a parliamentary vote sanctioning military intervention on Thursday – Hollande could, if he chose, act before a French parliamentary debate set for Wednesday.

In the interview with Le Monde, Hollande went on to say that France would act if the conditions justified it, and any response would be firm and proportionate.

“There are few countries that have the capacity to inflict a sanction by the appropriate means. France is one of them. We are ready. We will decide our position in close liaison with our allies,” Hollande said.

France ‘braced’ for UK vote

In the years since France and Britain clashed over taking part in the 2003 US-led war in Iraq, the two countries have become close diplomatic allies and coordinate closely on defence operations.

Just two years ago, Cameron stood by the side of Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, as the EU members launched air strikes against former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi’s forces to stop him from crushing a rebel uprising.

Despite the two countries’ close ties, French diplomatic sources said Hollande’s administration had been braced for the ‘no’ vote from British lawmakers on Syria. While disappointing, it would likely make France more determined to join any US action, they said.

“It wasn’t a surprise that Cameron lost the vote but it has made Hollande’s decision more complicated and more political. There are a lot of parameters to take into account,” one senior source told the Reuters news agency. “It’s not an easy decision.”

He said France had not yet decided on its course of action, but believed that not acting would create a dangerous precedent.

Francois Heisbourg, a special adviser at the Foundation for Strategic Research and former defence ministry adviser, said France was now waiting for the US government to make public its own intelligence assessment about the chemical attack.

“The Americans will make their proof public this afternoon. It will prejudge what Obama will say and he will, either privately or publicly, let loose the dogs of war,” he said.

Hollande was scheduled to speak with Obama on Friday.

Lukewarm public opinion

Two opinion polls published this week, and carried out after the alleged gas attack in Damascus, indicated lukewarm support among French voters for military intervention in Syria.

A survey by pollster CSA found 45 percent of respondents would support a U.N. military intervention and 40 percent would be opposed. Separately, 59 percent of people in an IFOP poll did not want France to take part in any intervention.

Hollande, whose popularity has been hurt by economic gloom, demonstrated his unexpected military mettle by dispatching troops to help Mali’s government fend off Islamist rebels earlier this year. The Mali campaign was back by two thirds of the French public, but Hollande appears increasingly isolated domestically and internationally on Syria.

(FRANCE 24 with wires)

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