François Hollande. Courtesy AP.
PARIS -- On Feb.14, 2003, French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin told members of the United Nations Security Council that taking part in the war in Iraq without absolute proof of weapons of mass destruction and without a UN endorsement was not an option for France.
But now, a decade later, France is the only major European U.S. ally likely to support military strikes against Syria, and French President Francois Hollande seems even more eager to go to war than President Obama.
"The chemical massacre of Damascus cannot and must not remain unpunished," Hollande said in an interview on Friday with the newspaper Le Monde.
"There are few countries that have the capacity to inflict a sanction by the appropriate means. France is one of them. We are ready," he said.
On Monday, the prime minister is meeting top members of parliament to discuss military intervention ahead of a debate in the French parliament Wednesday. The international community is watching what France will do following the defeat in the British parliament last week of a motion on military intervention.
French officials say they want to wait for a U.S. dec
"I think France is committed in a way that is worrying - Paris had strongly criticized the American intervention in Iraq in 2003 which proved to be a fiasco, and in Libya, President Sarkozy had made sure he had the U.N. backing," said Denis Bauchard, analyst at the Institut francais des relations internationales (IFRI), a think tank in Paris.ision, likely next week. Others say France needs more international backing for such an action.
"We are the only important Western country taking the U.S. side and that will lead to a certain misunderstanding in Arab opinion, a certain isolation within the European Union, and create tensions at the domestic level," said Bauchard.
Elected president in 2012, Hollande was widely seen as a soft leader but since then few have called him dovish.
In January, he launched a successful offensive against Islamist rebels in northern Mali. He is standing firm on military action in Syria, saying he's "determined to punish" Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime.
In France, legislative approval is not required for military action, and Hollande is only obligated to alert lawmakers three days before any intervention expected to last
Still, Hollande is under pressure from his own party to hold a vote on military action in parliament.
Like Obama, Hollande faces legislative opposition to engagement in Syria. And similar to the U.S., the French government has said it will release secret intelligence documents regarding the chemical weapons arsenal in Syria and the Aug. 21 alleged chemical attack east of Damascus to win lawmakers over.
A document from French intelligence was leaked to the weekly Journal du Dimanche reporting that the Syrian regime holds "several hundred tons of mustard gas" and "sarin (gas)," the total inventory exceeding 1,000 tons of chemical agents.
Both former Prime Minister Francois Fillon and current head of the conservative opposition party the UMP, Jean-François Cope, have warned Hollande against "tagging along with the U.S.," while the head of the Parti de gauche, leftist leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, has accused him of becoming a "back-up soldier" of the U.S.
"Military action would give power to the so-called rebels who are mainly Islamists," said Florian Philippot, deputy leader of the Front National, the far right party. "It would make the situation worse and turn Syria into what we already see in Libya."
"France should not get involved - past military experiences in Iraq and Libya were counter-productive, very expensive and they have put Islamists in power," he said.
Hollande faces an uphill battle with the public also.
Almost two-thirds of the French public do not support French military action against the Syrian regime, according to a poll published by newspaper Le Parisien.
"I do not understand this decision - it's completely irresponsible," said teacher Abdel Khelif in Paris. "We're going to engage in a war, God knows for how long, and for what? The region is a powder keg, and this will destabilize it even more with consequences we can't even imagine."