Could Syria Be a Test of France’s Reemergence?

By Martin Michelot

French President François Hollande faces no shortage of domestic problems following the unveiling of his government’s controversial budget. But at a November 13 press conference, Hollande diverted attention to foreign policy by announcing France’s recognition of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people, making it the first Western country to embrace that organization. This decision was celebrated as a crucial step toward the end of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, and as a symbol of Hollande’s ability to make tough decisions. 


Hollande’s announcement resembled the decision by his predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy to make France the first country to recognize the Libyan National Transitional Council in March 2011. That decision led to France and the United Kingdom taking the lead in a military intervention that was both a success, in that it helped remove Muammar Gaddafi from power, and a failure, in that the opportunity for further European integration was wasted. 


What should we make of the French decision to officially recognize the Syrian rebels? Since November 13, only Turkey, Italy, and the United Kingdom have followed suit. The Arab League recognized the rebels the day before, while the European Union and the United States have remained deliberately vague in their offers of support to the rebels. While the Israel-Hamas conflict has certainly postponed discussion of the matter, there seems to be no willingness on the part of France’s traditional partners to follow its example and to take a gamble in assisting the French in arming the rebels, as Hollande said would now be on the table, nor are we any closer to the possibility of Anglo-French operations in the country that might accelerate Assad’s removal from power. 


Hollande’s rather surprising move reflects the way that he and his advisors consider the practice of foreign policy and their overarching goal of preserving French influence. As the United States shifts its strategic focus to the Asia-Pacific region and asks that Europeans exert greater influence in their immediate neighborhood, France’s global influence remains characterized by diplomatic outbursts that only highlight its worrisome lack of influence in the conduct of international affairs. Having been overtaken by Germany for control over the European Union’s economic policies, France also finds itself virtually alone in efforts to revive a true European defense policy. 


The only way for France to reemerge on the global scene seems to be by spearheading efforts at resolving the Syrian situation, particularly in the absence of U.S. leadership. Indeed, despite the unification of the Syrian rebels, there are no signs of France reconstituting the broad-based coalition that intervened in Libya. Libya itself was a botched case with plenty of internal problems, with the added challenge of rebel weaponry being employed in the destabilization of the Sahel region — another problem that falls in France’s lap. France now faces the risk of stretching itself too thin, with the situation in Mali necessitating an attentive and proactive posture.


Interestingly, Hollande’s decision coincided with the release of a report by former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine on the future of NATO and the transatlantic alliance. In this much-anticipated text, Védrine recommended that France not reassess its presence in NATO’s integrated military command while also looking at ways to assert greater influence over the alliance, without detailing exactly how that might be possible. This report, despite asking many of the right questions, also highlights the extent to which French foreign policy seems to lack a guiding principle.


Instead, France attempts to make its voice heard through grand gestures, such as its announcement to withdraw troops from Afghanistan before the end of the year and the decision to recognize the Syrian rebels. At a moment when France’s road to sustaining leadership on the economic and political scene faces many significant obstacles, the necessity for French diplomacy to make a clear show of its guiding principles has never been stronger. The recent announcement by Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius that France will vote in favor of the Palestinians’ bid for non-member observer status at the UN can, in this context, be read both ways: just another grand gesture, or is France now willing to risk its political capital to exert pressure on its allies in order to influence the outcome of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa? 


Martin Michelot is a research and program coordinator with the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Paris.