LONDON — French President Francois Hollande came under heightened pressure Monday to secure the backing of lawmakers before taking military action in Syria, with his position significantly complicated by President Barack Obama’s decision to consult Congress ahead of any strike.
A vocal critic of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Hollande has long stood with Britain’s Prime Minister David Cameron in calling for tougher action. But after Cameron’s stunning defeat in the British Parliament over Syria last week and Obama’s weekend move, Hollande finds himself facing a new set of political risks.
France’s National Assembly is set to debate possible Syria action on Wednesday, but lawmakers are not scheduled to vote on a resolution. Under French law, Hollande does not need to call a vote until four months after any intervention has started and has thus far has rejected one prior to any strike.
But Hollande’s opponents argue that a decision by the French president not to allow a vote would leave Paris out of step with other world capitals.
“I think there should be a vote of Parliament,” Arnaud Danjean, a center-right French member of the European Parliament, told the France24 television channel. “We see the skepticism of the people, and we see the skepticism of our allies.”
The government in Paris is nevertheless pressing for action, with Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault meeting with top French lawmakers to disclose domestic intelligence on an alleged Aug. 21 chemical attack by the Assad regime.
The evidence, according to a nine-page summary posted on the French government website, described the “massive use of chemical agents” believed to be deployable only by Assad or the “most influential members of his clan.”
A French review of video footage counted at least 281 dead, but French experts also concluded that other estimates as high as 1,500 were consistent with the likely number of fatalities from such an attack.
Hollande’s opponents argue that Cameron, too, had the power to act without Parliament but chose to consult with lawmakers given the complexity of the Syrian conflict.
But French analysts say Hollande faces a difficult choice. A decision to act without the backing of lawmakers would raise questions about his mandate, but a vote would carry the risk of the same of surprise political humiliation that saw Cameron lose a call to arms last week. In addition, Hollande would probably have to wait until after Congress decides, less he leave Paris in the embarrassing position of having to back away from military action if Capitol Hill rejects it.
“This act cannot be left without a response,” Ayrault told reporters in Paris late Monday. But, he added “it is not for France to act alone. The president is continuing his work of persuasion to bring together a coalition without delay.”
In the wake of Britain’s decision to opt out of any strike, analysts said French participation in any American-led strike in Syria would be crucial to U.S. hopes of establishing international credibility for action. On Monday, NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he was convinced that the Syrian regime was behind the alleged Aug. 21 attack and called for strong action. But he made clear that he did not foresee a broader NATO role and said that it would be up to individual member nations to decide how to respond.
At the same time, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stepped up the pressure against Washington. Responding to U.S. claims it presented Russia with irrefutable evidence of regime culpability, Lavrov said, “There are no facts there.”
“When we ask for more detailed proof, they say, ‘You know, it’s all secret, so we cannot show it,” he said according to the Reuters news agency. “That means there are no such facts.”
If Hollande does join a U.S.-led coalition, it would raise the prospect that the very nation savaged in Washington for rejecting the 2003 Iraq invasion could emerge as the leading European partner in any Syria strike.
Yet even if the French participate and the British — traditionally the staunchest U.S. ally in Europe — sit this one out, few analysts see a long-term shift in which Paris replaces London as the go-to ally for Washington.
Rather, France has a number of rationales for acting in Syria that might not carry into the future. For one, France is the former colonial power there and sees Damascus as being within its sphere of influence. For years, Paris has also smarted at Assad’s involvement inside another former French colony, Lebanon.
“This is payback time for France,” said Fawaz Gerges, a professor of international relations at the London School of Economics. “The Assad regime has given them a hard time.”
In addition, by sitting out the war in Iraq, French politicians lack the same baggage as those in Britain, whose troops entered the U.S.-led mission in Iraq based on false intelligence. It has made any decision to join in on Syria easier for the Elysee Paris than No. 10 Downing Street.
Without question, France has recently be flexing its military might, helping lead the allied operation in Libya two years ago and taking unilateral action this year in Mali. Yet, France has long judged its foreign-policy objectives to be somewhat separate and distinct from purely “Anglo American” goals.
That makes it unlikely Paris would easily fill any void left by the British should their decision last week signal a future unwillingness to cooperate in coalition operations.