Francois Hollande Misreads France's Thoughts on Syria

Back in 1807, Hortense de Beauharnais -- Emperor Napoleon’s beautiful stepdaughter and the puppet-queen of French-occupied Holland -- composed a lyrical song called Partant pour la Syrie (Departing for Syria). In a typical French way, it mixes religious, military and erotic motives. While ostensibly about Dunois, a French knight about to leave for the Crusades, it alludes to the stunning French military achievements of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic age, including the 1798-1801 campaign in Egypt and the Holy Land. The first stanza deserves to be quoted in full:

Going to Syria

The young and handsome Dunois

Went to ask the Virgin Mary,

His heroic deeds to bless,

Make it so, immortal Queen

He said on his leaving,

That I love the most beautiful woman

And be the bravest.

A very popular song throughout the first half of the 19th century, and even an unofficial national anthem under the Second Empire (1852 to 1870), Partant pour la Syrie has remained a classic of French military music to this day. Indeed, it has contributed in no small way to modern France’s infatuation with the Orient, and the popularity of wars of colonial conquest or "pacification" in North Africa, the Balkans, and the Near and the Middle East.

In line with the 1916 Sykes-Picot agreement, the French occupied present-day Syria and Lebanon in 1920 and ruled them as a League of Nations mandatory power until 1946. France has been back in the area since 1978 as self-styled "protectors" of Lebanese independence, and as a permanent part of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) -- a largely decorative role.

However, Queen Hortense’s music may finally have run out of its magic.

The prospect of French participation in an American-led coalition against the Assad regime, as outlined by President François Hollande, is largely unpopular. According to a BVA/Le Parisien poll released on August 30, 64% of the French oppose such a move. An IFOP/Le Figaro poll on September 6 turned out exactly the same figures. This is a sharp rise from earlier polls: for about six months -- from February to the first weeks of August -- opposition to war amounted to an average 40% of the public opinion, and never went above 49%.

An LH2/Le Nouvel Observateur poll released on September 9 is shedding more light. The Left as a whole is more supportive than the Right: 49% to 27%. Followers of Hollande’s Socialist Party are much more supportive than the other groups composing the Left: 57% to 47% of the neocommunist Left Front followers and 39% of the Greens.

Among the Right, followers of Nicolas Sarkozy’s conservative party are slightly more supportive than followers of Marine Le Pen’s National Front: 29% to 21%.

Clearly, political affiliation is a factor: the more sympathetic one is to Hollande, the more one supports prospective operations in Syria. By that token, the president’s fortunes do not run high outside his own party. A confirmation of the very low global approval rate he currently enjoys: a bare 32% according to an AFP/Le Monde poll released on September 3.

But there is more than political affiliation behind the French reluctance to go to Syria: many citizens think the war is ill-conceived and may backfire. According to the BVA/Le Parisien poll, 37% think Western military operations will pave the way to a radical Islamic takeover of Syria, 35% are concerned operations may trigger a broader regional war and 22% are skeptical about the outcome for the local population in terms of improved safety and human rights.

As for Hollande’s (and Obama’s) main rationale for military action -- the "moral duty" to punish the Assad government for using chemical weapons against fighters and civilians alike in rebel areas – the French find it too reminiscent of the charges leveled ten years ago against the Saddam Hussein regime. The French largely opposed the second Iraq war, and have tended to believe ever since then that the entire case against Saddam’s non-conventional armaments was a deliberate American hoax.