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

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Doug Mills / The New York Times / Redux

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.”