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François Hollande’s foreign policy is likely to differ from Nicolas Sarkozy’s in style and tone but not in substance.

The use of force against the Syrian violent regime is now on the agenda but no military operation is likely to be launched without taking into consideration the interests of China and Russia in the region. The multilateral approach will probably be Paris’ weapon of choice during the mandate of the newly elected French President.

But a multilateral mistake remains a mistake. One can see three main reasons for France to stay out of Syria.

Missing: vision, leadership, money

France hasn’t had a serious public debate on foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. There isn’t a decision-making matrix which could help estimating at which point the State should abstain or should consider going to war. No line in the sand has been drawn, the principles or goals are unknown – and they are not discussed during presidential races.

There is a good reason for this: French voters don’t care about foreign policy in general. A poll by Ipsos for Fondapol underlines that only 36% of the electorate think Hollande can manage an international, diplomatic or military crisis (61% for the mercurial Sarkozy). Military adventurism is clearly out of his electoral mandate. Polls expose that the new President has been elected to tackle domestic issues: the problematic economic situation, the public debt, unemployment, pensions, healthcare, etc.

The French electorate is right to worry about the domestic economic situation: the French State is broke and is in the middle of a European public debt crisis. It has a €1.7 trillion public debt which represents 86% of the country’s GDP and the country hasn’t seen a balanced budget since the year 1974. It also has the highest public spending ratio of the Eurozone: 57% of its economic output depends on life support from the State and 26% of the workforce is civil servants – compared to 10% in Germany. Yet, no public spending cuts, no labour reform, and no liberalization is on the table at the moment.

Let me sum up: the French State has no clear strategy or apparent principles when it comes to foreign policy and military involvement, the new President wasn’t elected to conduct a war but to focus on domestic problems and the terminally indebted State really doesn’t have a cent to finance a war.

How to lose a war

Even if the French State could think, lead and finance a war against the Syrian regime, military experiences from major players – among them the United States – in the foreign affairs field expose that a military victory in the region is difficult to obtain and that it won’t necessarily lead to a stable country.

Syria is a very complex country. The opposition to the regime is fragmented between the National Coordination Committee (NCC) which wants to share the power with the current regime, the exile-based Syrian National Council (SNC) that rejects any compromise with it, the disorganized Free Syrian Army (FSA) which seems to cooperate with the SNC, the Muslim Brotherhood that would prefer Turkey to intervene, the Syrian Kurds who reject this option, etc. The political loyalty of the population goes to different actors based on their different religion, sect, ethnicity and clan.

Because of the absence of traditional building blocks of liberal democracy in the country, both in the regime and its opposition, the most promising paths to new forms of unity and order are illiberal: religious rule, war, or new autocrats.

France’s assistance to rebels would vindicate Assad’s narrative that the revolt is a conspiracy of outside forces, including the United States, Israel, and the Gulf states. It could also stir Sunni elites in Damascus to rally around Assad, strengthening his support, rather than weakening it.

France efforts to help the rebels or to bomb the regime’s forces will amount to contributing to a worsening situation without a means of reaching a peaceful end state.

A military intervention in a foreign country always triggers a cascade of unintended consequences and the threat of a blow-back against civilian population in Syria and France is real.

Beside the fact that another military operation would mean a au revoir to any hope of budgetary rigour, foreign wars are always a good way for national governments to trample their Constitution and the civil liberties of their citizens.

Some of the recent American foreign interventions have turned out very badly, costing lives, exploding the budget, undermining their moral authority and failing to achieve desired goals. Haven’t there been enough recent failures in American foreign policy that we ought to try to make our own?

Paris should recognize the limits of its authority and resources and stop starting unnecessary wars – like in Syria.

Published on 24hgold.com on 4 June 2012.

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