France: Hollande under water

It’s a truism of politics the political regimes are usually constructed as a reaction against the regimes that preceded them. This is certainly true in France, where the Fifth Republic, with its strong Presidency and relatively weak parliament, was deliberately designed as an antidote to the week and confused Fourth Republic. So every French President usually gets a chance to launch military operations somewhere in the world, on his own initiative.

So here we are in Syria. Or rather, here we are not in Syria. At the beginning it must have seemed very simple. There was going to be an international attack on Syria, against a regime that everyone now dislikes, and in the name of vaguely humanitarian ideals, even if it wasn’t very clear exactly what they were. That being so, there was no way that France could be left out. So, as with Gulf War I in 1991, as with Kosovo in 1999 , there was an international coalition in which France would be involved. The fact that modern Syria is basically a French creation gave this an added political as well as moral dimension.
But then things started to get difficult. The British Parliament demonstrated an independence that it had not shown for centuries. President Obama suddenly appeared to be getting cold feet, seeing his rhetorical threats about crossing red lines actually having to be made good. So François Hollande is in the curious position of moving from being just a supporting actor, to being the only national leader who could, theoretically, launch a missile attack on Syria tomorrow without consulting anyone, or feeling the need to. This is not exactly the position that the French government expected or wanted to be in a month ago. The problem is particularly acute for Hollande because he abandoned his promises to do something about the corruption and mismanagement of the Sarkozy years almost before he was sworn in. Having caved in and adopted neoliberalism as a policy, he now has little to do apart from pursue eye-catching initiatives like homosexual marriage. But that doesn’t really amount to a policy, even if it keeps some of his own party quiet.
All of which means that his handling of the Syria crisis, unusually for a French President, could wind up weakening him rather than strengthening him. An attack by France alone is militarily conceivable, but it’s hard to see what purpose it would serve.  Increasingly, Hollande and Obama resemble a pair of weak individuals desperately looking to prove their virility by attacking someone smaller than they are. Both of them, I suspect, would give a sigh of relief if their respective parliaments failed to support them. But for Hollande, that’s not possible. All he can do is pray for Obama not to back down.


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