France’s declaration of war unlikely to succeed — for the president or for peace

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War dove, by John Graham / @johngrahamart)

French President François Hollande warmongering response to the Paris attacks has gone down like a lead balloon in large parts of the Republic — which could be good news for peace, writes IA's French correspondent Alan Austin.

The French are not like the British or the Americans. Or Australians. Instead of supporting a wartime leader by muting domestic criticism and backing his belligerence, disapproval of the French president among citoyens is quite open.

This is bad for President François Hollande. But it could be good for peace.

Immediately after last week’s attacks in Paris, which killed 129 people and injured hundreds more, Hollande declared war on Islamic State (IS), the group that claimed responsibility. He urged other countries to join his escalated aerial bombing of targets inside Syria. But he resisted calls to send in artillery and troops to fight IS on the ground.

Instead of being hailed for his resolute leadership, criticism has continued, both from inside and outside the republic. Within, all commentary on the president’s actions begins with warm affirmations of la solidarité. Then follow les critiques.

Some prominent leaders of parties to the left of Hollande’s Socialist Party claim bombing other countries is the cause of terrorist attacks, not the solution. These include Lutte Ouvrière (Workers' Struggle Party) leader Nathalie Arthaud and head of L'Union des démocrates et indépendants Jean-Christophe Lagarde.

From the right, the escalating bombing in Syria was generally approved. But the reluctance to send in troops was questioned, as was the failure adequately to strengthen domestic security. Nicolas Sarkozy and Laurent Wauquiez, the president and general secretary respectively of Les Républicains party demanded that thousands of suspected terrorist sympathisers be rounded up and detained. Echoing this call were president of Debout La France Nicolas Dupont-Aignan and leader of the far right Front Nationale Marine Le Pen.

So why is the nation not united behind the commandant en chef? It worked for Margaret Thatcher when she declared war against Argentina in 1982. And for George W Bush against Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. It ensured John Howard romped back in 2004 after joining Bush junior’s Iraq invasion and acting as US deputy sheriff.

Clearly, France is différent. It didn’t work for former president Nicolas Sarkozy in 2011. He ordered strikes against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libyan forces in March. By October, with allied help, he had destroyed the regime — and Gaddafi along with it. Sarkozy lost the national election six months later.

Conversely, in October 2001, Jacques Chirac famously refused to join George W. Bush’s adventure in Afghanistan. He went on to win a second presidential term six months later — with 82.2% of the run-off vote.

Support for Hollande abroad has been muted also. Those unenthused by his military response include US president Barack Obama and Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull.

Obama told an intense press conference at the G20 summit in Turkey this week:

“It’s best that we don’t shoot first and aim later.”

Also at the G20 meeting, Turnbull reported on his meetings with Islamic national leaders:

There were very strong statements especially from the leaders of the big Muslim countries in the room – Indonesia of course the largest, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Malaysia – repeating what they’ve been saying since the attacks in Paris ... [that] claims by these terrorist groups, by Daesh or IS, to be speaking in the name of God, to be speaking in the name of Islam, are absolutely blasphemous.”
More recently, in the Philippines, Turnbull addressed specifically the military attacks on Syria:

I have to say this is the view of all of the countries’ leaders with whom I spoke in Turkey, all of them ... that the presence of foreign armies in that theatre at the present time would be counterproductive given the lessons of history, relatively recent history.

The critical thing is the outcome of what you do and plainly a political settlement is the objective. It is enormously difficult. You know the enmities run very deep. But plainly, when you look at Daesh or ISIL, its base is a Sunni population that has felt disenfranchised or oppressed in Syria — and with very good reason  —  and also has felt left out of the new government in Iraq.

British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn vehemently opposed the military response:

“One war doesn’t necessarily bring about peace. It often can bring yet more conflict, more mayhem and more loss.”

Simultaneously, plenty of hawks criticised Hollande from the right. Most Republican candidates jockeying for presidential candidature in the USA supported the retaliation, but urged more.

South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham the day after the Paris attacks demanded a full invasion to

“... pull the caliphate up by the roots, take back land held by ISIL and hold it until Syria repairs itself."

Others urging tougher measures from abroad included Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orban, Poland’s brand new conservative government and, of course, Germany’s Pegida — the movement of European patriots against the Islamisation of the West.

French regional elections next month should reveal the judgment of the nation on Hollande’s handling of the crisis. Most observers predict his Parti socialist will fare poorly. But who will gain l’avantage? Will it be the right wing Républicains of Nicolas Sarkozy, or Le Pen’s hard right Front National? Or will the "violence begets violence" viewpoint aid the far left parties – Nouveau Parti Anticapitaliste or the Trotskyist Lutte Ouvrière (Workers' Struggle) or Parti Radical de Gauche?

We will see in three weeks. Meanwhile, Hollande’s prime minister Manuel Valls has admitted more attacks are planned, against other countries as well as France:

“We are going to live with this terrorist threat for a long time.”

The success of Hollande’s and Valls’ response to this will determine not just their future, but that of France and perhaps much of Europe as well.

Alan Austin is an Australian freelance journalist who resides near Nîmes in the South of France. You can follow Alan on Twitter @AlanTheAmazing. You can purchase original art by John Graham from the IA store.

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