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Hollande feels political heat as Obama seeks Syria vote

4 min

US President Barack Obama’s decision to seek the approval of Congress for any military strikes in Syria has led to calls for French President François Hollande to put the question of action against Damascus to a parliamentary vote as well.


Pressure is mounting on French President François Hollande to put any motion to launch military strikes against Syria before a parliamentary vote.

It follows Barack Obama’s surprise announcement Saturday that he would seek approval from Congress before taking action against Damascus and Thursday's shock defeat of a motion to approve a military strike in the UK parliament.

On Saturday evening, Jean-Louis Borloo, leader of the centrist UDI party, urged Hollande to follow the example of the US and UK and also seek parliamentary approval before going ahead with an attack on Syria.

The French parliament is due to debate the issue on Wednesday, but as yet, no formal vote on Syria has been scheduled. Under the French constitution, Hollande does not require parliament’s approval in order to launch a military strike.

“Like the US president, who decided to consult the US Congress in the name of democratic principles, the French president must organise, after the debate, a formal vote in parliament," said Borloo in a statement.

A similar request was made by Christian Jacob, the leader in parliament of the right-wing UMP, as well as representatives of several other smaller French political parties on both the left and right.

France on its own as US stalls, UK backs out

Until recently, military intervention by the West in Syria seemed both inevitable and imminent, with the US, UK and France all calling for punitive action following a chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians, allegedly carried out by the Bashar al-Assad regime.

But that trio was reduced to a duo on Thursday last week following a shock defeat for Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron when he put a motion to approve military action against Syria before the country’s parliament, effectively ending the chances of the UK being involved in any strikes against Assad.

Nevertheless, France and the US appeared to be standing firm on their commitment to an armed intervention in Syria.

Hollande told French media Friday that the country “was ready” for military action, while in a speech the same day US Secretary of State John Kerry warned that “history would judge us extremely harshly” if the US failed to take action against Damascus.

But now, Obama’s decision to seek approval for a military strike from a sceptical and war-weary Congress puts even the US’s involvement in doubt and risks leaving France standing alone as the main advocate for an armed response.

Although Obama could still order military action even if Congress votes against it, it is not clear if he would be willing to do so.

‘France cannot go it alone’

At the very least, Obama’s decision will significantly delay any possible armed intervention in Syria, with Congress not due to return from the August recess until September 9.

This delay, however, could give Hollande the chance to reassess his options before pressing ahead with military action, with French Interior Minister Manuel Valls confirming Sunday that France would await Congress’s decision rather than press on without US support.

"France cannot go it alone," Valls told Europe 1 radio. "We need a coalition."

Meanwhile, UMP leader Jean-François Copé has insisted Hollande should wait for the conclusions of UN weapons inspectors in Syria before making any decision.

“If and only if the use of chemical weapons is established, a targeted and limited intervention … should be on the table,” he said Saturday.

Former prime minister and UMP member François Fillon was even more hostile to the possibility of French military action, urging Hollande to act "responsibly" and not follow anyone into an attack "even if they are our friends and allies, the Americans".

"The region is a powder-keg," he added.

There is a sense the French right is now seeking to distance itself from intervention in Syria, having earlier supported it, possibly in reaction to polls suggesting military strikes would be deeply unpopular with the French public - something that Hollande may well take into consideration as he mulls his options.

According to a BVA poll released by French daily Le Parisien on Saturday, 64 percent oppose military action, 58 percent do not trust Hollande to conduct it, and 35 percent fear it could "set the entire region (Middle East) ablaze".

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