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WMD concerns at the heart of France's hardline policy

As the Syrian war reaches a critical juncture, some analysts see an evolution in French diplomacy where a "pro-Arab" wing has traditionally held sway

What a difference a decade makes.

In 2003, the French were derided in some quarters as "cheese eating surrender monkeys" after Jacques Chirac opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq. Now, 10 years later, they are out on a limb in completely the opposite direction on Syria.

With Britain abandoning military plans, and with Washington delaying action after President Barack Obama challenged Congress to vote, French President Francois Hollande is still advocating "punitive" strikes against the Syrian regime as part of a "grand coalition".

Under the French constitution, the president can inform parliament "up to three days" after the beginning of any military intervention. The French parliament yesterday debated the wisdom of military strikes, but did not vote.

Whatever happened to the "cheese-eating surrender monkeys"? Analysts say that the French caution on Iraq, compared to its forward-leaning policy on Iran, Libya and Syria, should be considered on a case-by-case basis given the tangled French colonial history in the region.

On Iraq, reflecting a major strategic rift between Britain and France, President Chirac was accused of having close personal relations with Saddam Hussein and worried about losing lucrative French oil contracts. But Mr Chirac argued - correctly, as it turns out - that the case for war based on intelligence about the alleged threat from Saddam's weapons of mass destruction could not be justified.

His foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, delivered the most eloquent speech to the UN Security Council on February 14, 2003 opposing military action. His impassioned intervention in favour of pursuing the UN weapons inspections was crowned by unprecedented applause in the Council chamber.

On Iran, the same President Chirac took a hard line, as did his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, whose policies are being continued by President Hollande.

President Chirac laid down the line in an interview before leaving office, explaining that an Iranian nuclear bomb could lead to other states in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, going down the same route. That would raise the likelihood of nuclear weapons being used in an already unstable region.

On Libya, while President Obama was being accused of "leading from behind", President Sarkozy joined forces with British Prime Minister David Cameron to press for military action to avert a massacre in Benghazi by the forces of the Libyan leader, Muammar Qaddafi. The U-turn by France was all the more significant as Mr Sarkozy had actively courted Mr Qaddafi following his abandonment of WMD. According to Camille Grand, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, Mr Sarkozy wanted to "correct" the government's position after failing to predict the Arab Spring, particularly in Tunisia.

On Syria, Mr Hollande's government has been a consistent and outspoken critic of Bashar Al Assad since the uprisings began two years ago. President Chirac was a personal friend of Rafiq Hariri, the former Lebanese prime minister who was assassinated by a car bomb blamed on Syrian agents. But Mr Sarkozy initially sought to draw Mr Al Assad into his plans for a Mediterranean union. When he realised that Mr Al Assad was not the reformist that some western leaders had hoped, his disappointment was all the greater.

France took a leading role earlier this year to call for the rebels to be armed, while supporting a political solution. Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, said in June that the Syrian conflict had to be viewed from the perspective of the Assad regime's strategic alliance with Iran. "If we can't prevent Iran from getting its hands on Syria, what credibility will we have when demanding that it doesn't get a nuclear weapon?" Mr Fabius said on French television.

But Francois Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Research, said that Mr Fabius had realised that "chemical weapons are one issue on which Iran is hypersensitive", following Iraq's use of toxic gas against the Iranian population in the 1980-88 war. "The Iranians are absolutely horrified by what happened in Damascus" on August 21.

Mr Grand sees an evolution in French diplomacy where a "pro-Arab" wing has traditionally held sway. Since the Iraq war, he says, Atlanticists have moved into the ascendant. French policy was previously driven by a Gaullist need to define a diplomacy distinct from America's, as exemplified by Mr de Villepin. Now there is a mainstream "who are more at ease with Obama than Bush, and prepared to act in a resolute fashion".

French analysts say that for France, a nuclear power, preventing the proliferation of WMD is the cornerstone of French policy. That is why the reason invoked by President Hollande for military action against Syria is to "punish" the use of chemical weapons in Damascus. "Proliferation is a game-changer," says Mr Grand. "If Iran gets a nuclear weapon we're in a different world."

So maybe the French aren't "surrender monkeys" after all. "They never were," said Mr Heisbourg.

 

Anne Penketh is a journalist based in Paris who writes on security issues

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