France’s strategic loneliness in Europe

France’s strategic loneliness in Europe

There was not much of a common European foreign policy on Syria to start with but France now stands conspicuously alone in advocating a military solution. 

In St. Petersburg, European divisions were exposed with the representatives of EU institutions clearly pulling the German non-interventionism line. With British Prime Minister David Cameron muted by a parliamentary veto, the voice of “warrior France” was barely heard in the overall cacophony of the event. The G-20 European fiasco was predictably followed by a face-saving exercise with the 27 issuing a joint statement asking for a “clear and strong response.”

Whether the verbose statement could be interpreted as political support for a strike is debatable but the French left-leaning commentariat believes it can. Rallying behind a marginalized “normal” president, the state-subsidized press has been working hard to relay the presidential line to a skeptical public. “Mais non!” they trumpet in unison, President François Hollande is not alone. 

U.S. President Barack Obama must have sensed that his fragile coalition could lose its strongest Western military ally. State Secretary John Kerry launched a charm offensive. “France is America’s oldest ally,” he said. Indeed. The victory of Admiral de Grasse’s fleet against the Royal Navy at the battle of Chesapeake (1781) and the dispatching of an expeditionary force to fight alongside George Washington’s army were instrumental in turning the tide of the War of Independence. 

But Louis XVI’s intervention on the side of American insurgents against the perfidious Albion offers little guidance on the usefulness of another Western intervention in the Middle East. French history in Syria offers some. 

The French Republic has drawn political lines in the Syrian sand before, without success. It drew the 1916 Sykes-Picot line subsequently partitioning its colony into entities along sectarian lines. Its mandate (1920-1945) was characterized by a succession of brutal military campaigns against local uprisings. 

It is an irony of history that as France prepares to bomb Syrian targets, Bashar al-Assad’s grand-father (Ali Suleyman) had distinguished himself soldiering for the French army, earning the name of “al-assad,” the lion. 

French rule ended in disgrace with the bombing of Damascus (1945) to “punish” yet another rebellious faction causing the loss of hundreds of innocent lives. When under British pressure the last of its troops left Syria (1946), the newly independent country descended into sectarian strife. France’s meddling in Syria is a cautionary tale on the limits of foreign political engineering in a highly complex ethnic and religious environment. 

The ongoing conflict is a tragedy but there is no reason to believe that a limited strike will end the daily horror. Worse, the conflict could spread beyond the country’s borders, destabilizing the region.
As President Hollande persists in his decision to “punish” the al-Assad regime for its alleged use of sarin gas, he might wish to ponder another lesson of our history. 

Having isolated himself from his own people (64 percent disapprove of intervention), he could expose himself to unintended political consequences at home. Louis XVI’s foreign adventures crippled the kingdom’s finances, precipitating his fall and the 1789 Revolution. In 2013 France is heavily indebted and, the Socialist economic government is proving yet another unmitigated disaster. 

Could a Syria strike be an intervention too far for France’s unpopular president?

Sophie Quintin Adalı is an analyst for, the francophone project of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation.