Why France is willing to go to war

Even on Syria, Paris has its own agenda — and it doesn’t include currying Washington’s favour


Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux

The United States may be a uniquely powerful military force, but when preparing for conflict, American leaders prefer to publicly lean on supportive friends.

When George W. Bush addressed a joint session of Congress less than two weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he mentioned many countries that had offered help or shown solidarity, including France and the United Kingdom. “America has no truer friend than Great Britain,” he said to loud applause. “Once again, we are joined together in a great cause.”

America and Britain fought together in Afghanistan, and again a short time later in Iraq—a war that France notably opposed, causing much public animosity between the two countries. Congressional cafeterias renamed french fries “freedom fries” on their menus, and the New York Post ran a headline labelling France and Germany the “Axis of Weasel” because they planned to “wimp out” on Iraq.

A decade later, with America poised to launch strikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria because of its apparent use of chemical weapons in an Aug. 21 attack that Washington says killed more than 1,400 people, Secretary of State John Kerry told Americans they should feel confident and gratified because America was not alone in its condemnation of the Assad regime’s alleged actions, or in its willingness to do something about them. He listed a few countries and organizations, but did not mention Britain, whose Parliament had just voted against any possible participation in military strikes on Syria. Instead, Kerry singled out “our oldest ally, the French.”

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That remark must have stung in Britain. The French-American alliance, after all, dates to America’s Revolutionary War against the kingdom of Great Britain some 225 years ago. And yet it was understandable that Kerry said what he did. France, alone among European powers, stood ready to join in military strikes against Syria, giving America the support of a major power in Europe and blunting accusations of unilateralism. What’s more, it underlined the extent to which relations between France and the United States have healed—or, perhaps, how resilient they have always been, despite all the public animosity over Iraq.

“LA FAYETTE is back,” says Jonathan Laurence, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, speaking half in jest about a French nobleman and general who fought with the Americans during the Revolutionary War.

Laurence says a shift in French-American relations predates the current crisis in Syria. At the time of the Iraq war, in 2003, there appeared to be a split among the most powerful Western allies, dividing Britain and the United States from France and Germany. Then Angela Merkel was elected German chancellor in 2005 and proved to be more pro-American than her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy, an unabashed fan of the United States, succeeded the Gaullist Jacques Chirac in 2007.

Sarkozy drove a “transformation” of the relationship between France and the United States, says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director for European Affairs at the National Security Council in the first Bill Clinton administration.

“[Sarkozy] effectively laid to rest the Gaullist inclination to regularly pit France against the United States on many issues of geopolitics.”

As a result, says Kupchan, current French President François Hollande has inherited a situation “in which hitching a wagon to the United States doesn’t have the negative consequences that it used to.”

That’s not entirely the case. Hollande has taken a political hit over Syria, says Clara O’Donnell, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center on the United States and Europe. France pushed early for a robust response. But it now has to wait for the United States, and the American Congress, to decide on its course of action before France can realistically do anything. A French comedy show recently portrayed Hollande asking Obama for permission to use the bathroom.

It’s the type of insult that used to get thrown at former British prime minister Tony Blair, who was routinely depicted in newspaper cartoons as a mad poodle.

But the slur misreads why France is willing to go to war in Syria—which isn’t to curry favour with the United States.

“France has long sought to maintain this element of grandeur in French foreign policy, whereby France as a nation remains able to influence the course of world events. It’s a deep-seated penchant in France,” says Olivier de France, a fellow at the European Union Institute for Security Studies in Paris.

According to Jan Techau, director of the European centre of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the French also feel an obligation to defend human rights and oppose crimes against humanity internationally, in part because of its historic traditions of humanism dating to the French Revolution.

France retains the capacity to act on these ambitions, and does so. Earlier this year, for example, in response to an advance by Islamist militants on the Malian capital of Bamako, and a request for help from the Malian government, it mounted a lightning-fast military intervention that routed the Islamists.

French foreign-policy goals usually align with those of the United States. A French diplomatic source says the divide over Iraq was an exception in the history of relations between the otherwise like-minded allies. Even in the aftermath of Iraq, military and intelligence co-operation between the two countries remained high.

In Syria, the French source says, France, like America, is motivated by a perceived need to enforce a ban on the use of chemical weapons and establish a deterrent precedent that might prevent other countries, including Iran, from using such weapons in the future. Paris might want Assad gone, but it doesn’t want to use force for the explicit purpose of unseating him.

This doesn’t mean France is wavering in its willingness to launch strikes on Syria, even as diplomatic wrangling appears to be delaying their onset. On Monday, Syrian ally Russia proposed a plan that would see Syria place its chemical weapons under international control in order to prevent outside military intervention.

As of this writing, France was fine-tuning a similar resolution for the United Nations Security Council. In addition to demanding those responsible for the Aug. 21 chemical attack face trial at the International Criminal Court, it would threaten “serious consequences” for the Syrian regime if it does not comply—“which, in undiplomatic terms,” the French diplomatic source says, “means the use of force.”

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Why France is willing to go to war

  1. It was not so long ago that chemical weapons were used in France, I can understand their desire to ensure these types of weapons are never used again.

  2. Or maybe France simply misses its imperial days.

  3. France talks the talk. But can they or will they walk the walk
    All I know about the french is WA WA WA . Over seas and in canada.

  4. France is itchy for war as no war, no profit. Like USA, bankrupt and what a better way to let currency failure for excessive debt and no-value money creation for governemtn debt be covered up by a war?

    Top munitions manufactures in the world in lose order are: USA, Russia, France, UK and China.

    USA, UK and France are technically bankrupt as no legitimate lender is lending government money, they just “print” (electronic counterfeit) it. Russia and China are not driven by debt. Part of why Gadhafi had to go, he didnt want more USD/Euro depreciating money he really could not spend or invest to maintain long term value for Libya. And Saudi, USA want Iran oil and than means getting rid of Syria.

    Yep, cheap oil for American/France profit, munitions for governemtn money, war on a credit card to hide banking failures and corruption, all guide us to war.

    G8 bankrupt countries are the regime. Can’t pay the bills without creating no value money but we can bomb them….accept USD/Euro depreciating money, send resources cheap or we bomb you policy.

    Makes me sick I am forced like slave to pay for war at all.

  5. This writer obviously doesn’t know, or is ignoring, the fact that “Around 21% of Iraq’s international chemical weapon equipment was French.”… Look in New York Times website for “confrontation-in-the-gulf-french-reportedly-sent-iraq-chemical-war-tools”.
    This article is a just a miserable and ignorant attempt to make France look good. Both the French and USA supported, supplied, and aided Sadam’s use of chemical weapons… And their “free” media tried to cover it up by accusing Iran of using it as well. Something that later proved to be very false. These uncritical and lying writers should really just quit.

  6. France has abandoned its DeGaulian and Chiracian stature of a great nation and became an American lap dog. If the threat to join the USA in bombing Syria is France’s only way to show that it is still a powerful European nation, it is sadly mistaken. The Germans must be laughing at Hollande’s efforts to best them.

    More over the French with other European countries supplied both the technology and the chemical compounds to the Syrian in the 80’s.

    “The bulk of chemical and biological weapons production technology came from “large chemical brokerage houses in Holland, Switzerland, France, Austria and Germany,” said Globalsecurity, a security information provider.

    “In the early 1980s, Syria mostly imported French pharmaceuticals, some of them so-called “dual use” chemicals, which could also be used for chemical weapons, it said.”


    So their “humanism” is pure hypocrisy

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