France's Hollande unveils plans for airstrikes in Iraq, battling Ebola
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At his biannual press conference on Thursday, French President François Hollande discussed his response to Islamist militants in Iraq, controversial plans to deliver a French warship to Russia and the Ebola crisis in West Africa.
Hollande announced French plans to conduct airstrikes in Iraq against the Islamic State militant group but said France would not extend its actions to neighbouring Syria, where the group has also established strongholds.
"I decided to respond to the request of the Iraqi authorities to offer aerial support," Hollande told reporters at a press conference at the Elysée Palace.
France began conducting reconnaissance flights over Iraq on Monday, the same day that Paris hosted an international conference on the crisis that saw some 30 countries and international organisations pledge to support Iraq "by any means necessary, including appropriate military assistance".
But Hollande made it clear that no ground forces would be involved and that militants operating in Syria would not be targeted. "We will not go further than that,” he said. “There will be no ground troops and we will only intervene in Iraq."
Thousands of French nationals and other Europeans have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside the jihadists, and authorities fear that they may return to launch attacks on home turf.
France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Sunday that an estimated 930 French citizens or residents, including at least 60 women, were either actively engaged in jihad in Iraq and Syria or were planning to go.
France's lower house National Assembly on Thursday approved a new "anti-terrorism" bill which will usher in a travel ban on anyone suspected of planning to wage jihad abroad.
From warships to Ebola
Hollande also addressed France's controversial plans to deliver two Mistral warships to Russia that were halted in the wake of Russian actions in Ukraine. Hollande said that the delivery would go ahead if a tenuous ceasefire now holding in east Ukraine is "respected" and as long as negotiations continue for an eventual peace. France faced pressure from Washington and other allies to halt the sale.
France has also decided to set up a military hospital in Guinea to fight the deadly Ebola virus that is spreading through West Africa, Hollande said.
"I have just decided to install in the coming days a military hospital in the forest areas of Guinea, the main site of the epidemic," Hollande said.
His announcement came as France awaited the return of its first Ebola patient, a female volunteer for the Doctors Without Borders (Médecins sans frontières) medical charity who contracted the virus in Liberia.
The deeply unpopular Hollande avoided confirming whether he would run for re-election in 2017, saying that he had "no other objective, no other priority" than to serve out his current term and do his best for the country.
"I am the president. I am not a candidate," he said.
Hollande has seen his approval ratings sink to new lows since his government returned to work in September, with only 13 percent of voters maintaining a favourable opinion of the French president at the halfway mark of his five-year mandate, according to a recent poll.
The personal goes public
Succeeding France’s flashy former head of state, Nicolas Sarkozy, in 2012, Hollande also promised to be a “normal president” who would keep his private life out of politics and out of the press. That vow was broken when a French tabloid in January lifted the lid on his love affair with French actress Julie Gayet, a revelation that precipitated his breakup with longtime partner Valérie Trierweiler.
Trierweiler recounted their failed romance in lurid detail in a tell-all memoir published last week. Trierweiler’s book, in which she also claimed Hollande mocked poor people by calling them the “toothless", has become a bestseller in France.
Hollande declined to respond when asked about his personal affairs on Thursday, citing the president's right to maintain a "private life" even while serving in public office.
Amid reports that Sarkozy may be planning a political comeback, Hollande simply said that the former president had that right under French law.
Economic results 'slow in coming'
France's record-high jobless rate has posed a persistent problem for Hollande. The labour ministry said in August that there were 3.4 million people out of work in what constituted the ninth consecutive rise in monthly unemployment.
France recently told its EU partners that it would not be able to bring its public deficit down to the EU-mandated limit of 3 percent of GDP until 2017. The EU has repeatedly extended the deadline for France to bring its deficit into line, but Hollande said Thursday that more forceful action could undermine economic recovery.
“France will not do more than that because it would be bad for growth. France will not raise new taxes, which could hurt the recovery,” he said, adding that Prime Minister Manuel Valls would explain France’s position to German Chancellor Angela Merkel when they meet in Berlin next Monday.
“Results are slow in coming, I recognise that,” the president told some 350 reporters and his entire cabinet in the grand ballroom of the Elysée presidential palace.
“The course I have set will enable us to achieve results, I hope before 2017,” he said.
Hollande used his first annual press conference in January to unveil the outlines of a pro-business shift in policy, the so-called Responsibility Pact, aimed at boosting the performance of France’s sluggish economy.
The president then faced an avalanche of criticism for offering tax breaks to businesses while implementing austerity measures – and for silencing those in his entourage opposed to such moves.
Anti-austerity economy minister Arnaud Montebourg was forced to resign after publicly questioning Hollande's economic policies earlier this month. He was promptly replaced by Emmanuel Macron, a former Rothschild banker, as part of a high-profile cabinet reshuffle prompted by Montebourg's comments.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP, REUTERS)
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