PARIS — France has been one of the western powers most actively involved in the ongoing Syrian conflict. In addition to military strikes against Daesh and giving support to rebel groups, it called for Bashar al Assad to step down in 2012, advocated western military intervention in 2013 after the Ghouta chemical weapons attack, and opened up a criminal investigation into torture by the Assad regime in 2014 following the release of the Caesar file.
French involvement in Syria predates the ongoing conflict. Under its colonial mandate after World War I, France divided the country into various regions after and fostered the Druze and Alawite minorities as part of a strategy to prevent nationalist unification. France’s troops left in 1946 when Syria declared independence.
More recently, candidates for the French presidential election – to be held this spring – have proposed a wide range of ideas on how to solve the conflict. Several are an about-face from the current policy which, as foreign policy expert at Sciences Po Paris Bertrand Badie put it, has been “to hit and to hit and to hit.”
Political outsiders are shaking things up this year with ideas that range from strengthening alliances with the European Union to completely abandoning it and working with Russia – either of which could substantially move French resources one way or the other. With France a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, the next leader of the country’s foreign policy may decide that the time has come to tip the balance of power in a new direction.
Because the Syrian Civil War has evolved into a series of complicated proxy wars and multiple diplomatic negotiating tracks, external alliances matter.
Donald Trump’s policy on Syria is still unclear and some French candidates are arguing that France could boost its national sovereignty through a partnership with Russia – something they believe is preferable to working with the European Union.
It is difficult to imagine a scenario where the United States would side with Russia and China on a resolution, such as the one introduced by the Security Council on February 28, which sought to impose sanctions on the regime in Syria for its alleged use of chemical weapons. Even if the Trump administration is considering a solution to the conflict that includes Assad and Russia’s cooperation, such a move could raise further questions about the administration’s ties to Moscow back home.
However, a pro-Russian candidate like Marine Le Pen or François Fillon could sway consensus in the Security Council to more Russian-led strategies. Such an initiative could then make American cooperation with Moscow – at least on Syria – more justifiable.
France’s approach to the Syrian war is therefore not only important for resolving the conflict and French security, but may also reshape the global order. Even if such a dramatic scenario does not play out in the UN, it could materialise similarly in less formal diplomatic avenues.
But the future is up for debate: on the matter of French intervention in Syria, there is little agreement among the five leading candidates for the presidency.
French voters go to the polls on April 23. The two candidates with the most votes will proceed to a runoff in May, unless one of them wins an unlikely majority in the first round. Although the Republican and Socialist parties have long dominated French politics, polls predict a second-round win for Macron against Le Pen. Both belong to political outsider parties with no major foreign policy precedent.
François Fillon of the Republican party is a social conservative who appeals to a French Catholic base. Since January, his campaign has suffered from allegations that he paid his wife and children hundreds of thousands of euros with taxpayer money for work they did not do. Authorities put him under a formal investigation earlier this month.
On Syria, Fillon has been ambiguous, calling Assad a “dictator and manipulator,” but then earning praise from the Syrian regime leader for a hardline approach to terrorism. In 2015, he said that France “must support the regime” in order to defeat Daesh.
On March 1, 2017, the UN released a report that did not mince words about war crimes in Aleppo. While President Hollande has also called attention to war crimes, Fillon has avoided the term. Instead, he said, “war is always a crime,” and “indignation is necessary, but it has never saved a life.”
He has been clear, however, in his intent to strengthen French cooperation with Russia. Last April, he sent a tweet saying “Only Russia has proven pragmatic and chosen a total fight against the Islamic State.”
Fillon has a close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He played billiards with the Russian president in Sochi and visited his dacha in 2013. On Wednesday, the French weekly Le Canard Enchaîné revealed that the candidate received $50,000 to connect Putin with a Lebanese business leader leader as well as the CEO of the French oil and gas giant Total.
Fillon’s ambiguity on Syria has drawn criticism from Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault, who accused the candidate of “an icy cynicism” regarding the violence in Aleppo, and from Prime Minister Manuel Valls, who said he believed Fillon’s “pro-Russian tendency” was compromising France’s independence.
Marine Le Pen
Marine Le Pen, who has campaigned on a populist agenda, would likely pursue an even more collaborative role with Moscow. On Friday, she met with Putin in Russia and addressed the country's lower house of parliament, the Duma, calling for the lifting of sanctions imposed over the country's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
Le Pen's party, the National Front, received funding from Russian banks until last July. Le Pen has called for an alliance between France, Russia, and the United States to fight “Islamist fundamentalism,” and last month French intelligence agencies revealed that they suspect Russia is working to influence the campaign in her favour.
Le Pen has also expressed support for the Syrian regime. During a visit to Lebanon this February, she announced that Assad was the “only viable solution” to the conflict – a position in stark contrast with Hollande’s support for the opposition and repeated calls for the regime leader to step down. If elected, Badie believes that Le Pen would reopen the French embassy in Damascus and support a Russian-led coalition against parties that her administration deems to be “terrorist.”
“There is strong nationalist current in Assad’s language and ideology,” he said, something that appeals to the leader of the National Front.
As part of a nationalist plan, Le Pen is in favour of withdrawing from NATO’s military programme and has vowed to ditch the euro. Last year, she accused the EU of having done everything possible to weaken the Syrian government and lead the country’s people into a civil war.
— Marine Le Pen (@MLP_officiel) October 5, 2016
The EU has condemned Russia’s role in the violence against civilians in Aleppo, calling for the country to be referred to the International Criminal Court, and has already sanctioned Syria. It is unclear how France would continue to work with the EU, both in terms of the conflict and the refugee crisis, under Le Pen’s leadership.
Pro-European Union contender Benoit Hamon of the Socialist Party does not share Le Pen’s willingness to engage with Assad. Last December, he sent a tweet saying: “There is no gradation in horror between Daesh and Bashar al Assad. He must be brought before international justice.”
Throughout his campaign, Hamon has appealed to France’s reputation as a defender of human rights. Last December, he announced that if he were president, he would travel to Aleppo, like when former President Francois Mitterand flew to Sarajevo in 1992 to show solidarity with besieged civilians.
Far left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon resembles Le Pen in matters of French sovereignty: last January, he referred to NATO as “the negation of our independence and symbol of our submission to the United States of America and their mad imperial policy.” Mélenchon’s Gaullist foreign policy agenda also includes promises to lead France out of NATO, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. He has also called for France to exit European treaties.
While Le Pen’s nationalist credo means working more closely with Russia, Melenchon would support a “universal coalition to eradicate Daesh.” He has also called for elections to be held under the guise of the UN and a ceasefire excluding “Islamic groups.” However, in 2016, the leader of the Left Party said that he thought Russian intervention in Syria would “solve the problem, eliminate Daesh.”
Melenchon also favours integrating the Syrian Kurds – of whom he has been publicly supportive – into the political process.
Emmanuel Macron, who started the party En Marche! (On the Move!) last year, is currently polling just one percentage point behind Le Pen, who leads with 26 percent of voter support. A centrist, his approach is decidedly pragmatic.
Like candidates on the right, Macron has said he would pursue an eventual lifting of sanctions against Russia under a peaceful process, but has also stated that France and Russia do not share the same values. Much of his platform involves strengthening the European Union, and he has said that “Europe must speak with one voice to have weight in the diplomatic world.”
Macron does not side with the current French policy that Assad must go, a perspective he made clear in a recent visit to Lebanon. He sees working with Assad as an interim strategy to find a tenable solution to the conflict – a nuance that neither Le Pen nor Fillon have expressed. In his proposal, he described the Syrian regime as “bloodthirsty” and “culpable.” Macron also called the violence in Aleppo “the greatest atrocity of our century” and insisted on a UN mandate for humanitarian intervention.
The solution for – and ultimate rebuilding of – Syria will undoubtedly require vast international involvement. France, which has been at the forefront of western intervention in the conflict, could push western influence in one direction or the other. Voters will decide how this spring, even if foreign policy is not at the forefront of their minds.