PARIS — For French President François Hollande, it seemed like the perfect response: a lightning-quick strike on Syria to punish the government for an alleged chemical weapons attack.
But with President Obama’s surprise decision to ask Congress for a go-ahead on military action, Hollande has found himself embroiled in political controversy abroad and at home. Instead of vaunting Hollande as a warrior charging off to do battle, critics say he now looks more like a sidekick who was left in the lurch by his American ally. Meanwhile, the possibility of bombing Syria has proved deeply unpopular in French public opinion.
The U.S. delay has also exposed the limits of French military might and left Hollande in an isolated holding pattern that his critics charge is a national humiliation.
Hollande reversed his charge-ahead position Friday, saying that before committing France to military action, he would wait for U.N. weapons inspectors to issue their report, a process that could take weeks and could jeopardize a joint action with the United States should it decide to move against Syria before then.
The reversal after two days of politicking by Hollande and Obama to bring on more allies was all the more notable because the inspectors’ report is not expected to assess whether Assad’s forces used chemical weapons -- just whether they were used at all, a point made by French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius earlier Friday as a reason not to wait for the report.
“There was never a question that France would intervene by itself,” Hollande told reporters in St. Petersburg at the end of a Group of 20 summit where he met with Obama to discuss Syria. “It makes sense to wait for Congress and the inspectors’ report. Once those pieces of information are in hand, I will address the nation and I will make a decision.”
The situation is a stark turnaround from the decade-old debate over Iraq, when France was the most prominent critic of U.S. intervention, questioning the evidence about the existence of an Iraqi chemical weapons program. That was the era when anti-French anger in the United States was so great that french fries turned into “freedom fries” and Americans derided the French as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”
Until Friday, Hollande had been in front of the United States on Syria, having pushed to arm Syrian rebels since earlier this year while Obama preached caution. But with a British parliamentary decision to hold back from involvement, France’s isolation is inspiring nervousness at home, even as opposition politicians are split over whether to support Hollande.
“Militarily, there’s stuff that we could do. We could let fly a few dozen cruise missiles on certain lucrative targets in Damascus or elsewhere in Syria,” said François Heisbourg, a defense expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “But to do that all on our own without any pretense of being representative of Europe or of NATO or of the U.N. Security Council? That is simply too much.”
The foot-tapping wait for the United States has, if anything, fed a perception here of French military weakness, rather than strength.
“It’s clear Mr. Hollande wanted an intervention which could not be implemented by France,” said Philippe Moreau Defarges, a foreign policy expert at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. “If the U.S. doesn’t go, he will look ridiculous.”
France has participated in two major military campaigns in recent years — the 2011 action against Libyan autocrat Moammar al-Gaddafi and a January air-and-ground campaign in Mali, both of which were broadly popular in France.
Hollande’s Mali action, which gave a boost to his faltering polling numbers, may have pushed him to move more quickly on Syria, one analyst said.
“He might have overestimated the lessons of Mali,” said Karim Bitar, a Middle East expert at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations in Paris. “Syria is a completely different situation. He probably felt emboldened because things went pretty well in Mali.”
A campaign against Syria would be particularly difficult for France to pull off alone.
Unlike Libya or Mali, Syria has robust air-defense systems, making any aerial campaign deeply risky, defense experts say.
France is short on the radar-defeating weaponry that the United States could use to diminish or cripple Syrian antiaircraft systems. And unlike the United States, which has extensive capability to fire cruise missiles from ships off Syria’s Mediterranean coast, most of France’s cruise missiles need to be fired from planes, requiring separate infrastructure capabilities that France is also short on, such as air-to-air refueling.
“If we had to operate from [France], it would be extremely difficult. If the U.S. is part of the equation, it changes completely,” said Etienne de Durand, director of the Security Studies Center at the French Institute for International Relations. For example, France has 14 air-to-air refueling tankers, only some of which are available for use, while the United States has around 400, he said.
The gaps were apparent during the 2011 Libyan war, when France and Britain led the military action but the United States needed to provide much of the support infrastructure, including aerial refueling and drone surveillance. The dependence on the United States would be even greater without British involvement this time around, experts said.
Even basics such as the trove of cruise missiles are vastly different between France and the United States.
“You have way more cruise missiles than we do. It’s not even comparable,” Durand said. “If we were going to fire 200 of them into Syria, it would be like half the arsenal we have. We do not use them like you do. We use them to take out strategic targets.”
French military experts estimate that their country has roughly 400 to 500 cruise missiles in their arsenal. The French Defense Ministry declined to comment on how many it had in stock.
A Wednesday parliamentary debate revealed deep divides over how France should proceed, with opposition leaders saying they wanted a vote ahead of any French military action, but with many opposition members also saying they would not oppose limited strikes. French presidents have near-absolute powers on matters of war and peace, and any vote would be a dramatic break from precedent.
“It would have been more comfortable for there to have been a hit already,” said Hubert Vedrine, who was a Socialist foreign minister from 1997 to 2002. “Now there are all these political discussions coming up.”
Many political analysts say that much of the parliamentary concern over Syrian action is for domestic political consumption, and that the center-right former president Nicolas Sarkozy, whom the Socialist Hollande defeated in May 2012, would likely have pursued similar policies on Syria. Sarkozy has been silent on Syria, but a Friday article in the center-right Le Figaro newspaper cited unnamed Sarkozy allies saying that he supports military action.
The joint isolation on Syria has had at least one upside for the Franco-American relationship, said Heisbourg, the defense expert.
“It’s much nicer than being called cheese-eating surrender monkeys,” he said.
Elaine Cobbe contributed to this report.