France asks: Should Hollande be able to OK Syrian action unilaterally?

President Hollande needs no parliamentary authorization to order military intervention in Syria. But some French believe that should change.

Michel Euler/AP
From left, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Driant, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, and Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, pose prior to a meeting at Matignon in Paris, Monday. Mr. Ayrault gave French parliamentarians an update on Syria and showed them a declassified report on Syria's chemical weapons to back up France's claim that the Assad regime was responsible for the attack.

The French parliament has been convened today for a special debate on Syria, as the west considers whether or not it will strike the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

But, unlike in Britain, where Parliament voted against such intervention, or the US, where the Congress is set to vote on punitive strikes next week, French President François Hollande has said that, at least today, no vote is on the table.

And that decision has spiraled into a constitutional debate on the absolute power of presidents in war, as French politicians square off over the legitimacy of intervention in Syria without parliamentary approval.

French presidents have had absolute powers when it comes to war since Charles de Gaulle under the Fifth Republic. Formed in the wake of the trauma of World War II, the country's 1958 constitution reinforced the powers of the presidency in the domaine réservé, or the foreign policy domain.

That allows France to act swiftly, without being bogged down by politics, to defend its national interests. The French president does not need parliamentary approval for any intervention that is less than four months long; he or she must only notify the parliament three days before planning to strike.

While the Socialist party opposed these absolute powers while in opposition, from the early 1980s onwards, the two major political parties on the right and left have formed a consensus about the best way to protect France: with the French president in ultimate charge. Overall, the French have long supported this power structure, and it has held through interventions in Libya to more recently Mali, and including the French president's decision not to join the war in Iraq a decade ago.

But today Mr. Hollande, a Socialist, faces a scenario in Syria that is far more complex. Leaders and the public at large agree that the use of chemical weapons, which the Assad regime is alleged to have done Aug. 21 in Damascus, is wrong. But Mr. Assad's opposition in the increasingly deadly civil war in Syria is comprised of dangerous and disparate groups – many of which are jihadist in nature. If the West were to intervene in a limited strike, the long-term impact is far from clear – for democracy, for minority groups in Syria, and for the long-term obligations of the West.

These doubts are apparent in opinion polling that has showed respondents against intervention from the US to Britain to France.

Challenging le président

But from the beginning, Hollande has been a leading hawk, employing a “war-mongering” tone that has run counter to public opinion in France, says Olivier Zajec, a research fellow at the Institute of Strategy and Conflicts.

Now the French parliament is looking to Britain and France and asking whether it too should have a say. In the short term, Hollande could be forced to consult parliament for a vote for political legitimacy, and ultimately step back from his clear-cut position to strike Syria. But Syria has also unleashed long-term questions about the legitimacy of presidents to make unilateral decisions about war when it is unclear whether French interests are at stake.

“This 'consensus' about the 1958 constitution can't function anymore if the president's decisions are not rational and taken to defend the very interest of France,” says Mr. Zajec. “The Syrian controversy could potentially lead to a real debate about the domaine réservé,” even though he adds the French remain resolutely attached to the presidential status of commander-in-chief.

When British lawmakers rejected Prime Minister David Cameron's plans to punitively strike Syria last week, Hollande did not back down, saying that the country was prepared to fight no matter what other countries decided to do. But France has neither the capability nor the will to fight without the US as part of a coalition.

President Barack Obama said the US Congress would vote on a future Syria intervention after it reconvenes Sept. 9. The US delay effectively puts on hold any French action – and leaves time for demands for a vote at the National Assembly as more questions arise over the merits of intervention.

Retributive action

When earlier this year Hollande took the decision to intervene in the West Africa nation of Mali to uproot insurgents, he received a major jump in polls. Many approved of the boldness of his actions.

But he made that decision based on overwhelming public support. At the time, a poll by Ifop showed that 60 percent of the French public supported intervention in Mali. An Ifop poll from last week shows nearly the same number opposed to intervention in Syria.

The French government has loudly called for Syria to be punished. It disclosed its own intelligence to lawmakers recently showing the “massive use of chemical agents” on Aug. 21 that is thought to have killed anywhere from a few hundred people to more than one thousand.

Hollande has long said it is simply wrong not to hold the actors of such an attack accountable. Harlem Désir, first secretary of the French Socialist Party, said that not intervening would be cowardly. “Today it is France that must help find a solution in Syria and end this massacre to prevent a new Sarajevo, a new Rwanda,” he said on French radio.

But unlike Germany and other nations calling for a diplomatic solution, Hollande has voiced support to strike. It is the reverse scenario from 2003, when France rejected participation in Iraq.

Pressure for a vote

Obama's decision to postpone US action on Syria, however, has put Hollande in a political bind, as pressure has mounted for him to engage the arguments against intervention. “I think there should be a vote of parliament,” Arnaud Danjean, a center-right French member of the European Parliament, said on TV. “We see the skepticism of the people, and we see the skepticism of our allies.”

Meanwhile, a recent BFMTV poll showed 74 percent of respondents thought parliament should vote on a future intervention.

They will not be voting today – and some dozen right-wing deputes, The Irish Times reports, have decided to boycott the meeting underway this afternoon because of it.

The special session today was never called for the purpose of a vote – in fact it was thought that it would have occurred as a strike was underway. The Hollande administration rejected turning today's debate into a vote.

But now it seems that the government might be moving towards one, perhaps as early as next week.

A vote could lend Hollande political legitimacy to strike, and defend him from fallout should an intervention turn more complicated or deadly than anticipated. But it could also backfire if lawmakers reject action in a surprise move like what happened in Britain, leaving him unable to act after months of tough rhetoric.

“It’s up to the president of the republic to decide if a vote, which is not required by our constitution, should take place,” French prime minister Jean-Marc Ayrault said after meeting elected officials on Monday night.

Alain Vidalies, the minister for parliamentary relations, repeated that stance but said in separate comments that a vote “is not a taboo subject for François Hollande.”

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