French President Francois Hollande draws fire over leadership on Syria


French President Francois Hollande delivers a speech at the beginning of a social conference with unions and employers in Paris, France on July 9, 2012. Hollande is under attack from political opponents over his perceived lack of leadership on Syria. (Thibault Camus/AP)
August 10, 2012

President Francois Hollande has come under a withering political attack from his conservative opponents over what they charge is lack of French leadership in dealing with the Syrian civil war.

The political offensive is roughly similar to the accusations of inaction leveled against President Obama by Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney in the United States. But in France, the election campaign has long been over: Hollande, a Socialist, defeated former president Nicolas Sarkozy and assumed the presidency more than three months ago.

Nevertheless, Sarkozy and his followers have drawn comparisons between Hollande, who has said France would intervene only under a U.N. Security Council mandate, and Sarkozy, who waged an energetic diplomatic campaign last year to persuade the United States, Britain and other French allies to intervene militarily in Libya.

The criticism has gained particular resonance because Hollande is on vacation in a luxurious government mansion on the Riviera, providing an opening for charges that he is suntanning while Syria burns.

Sarkozy himself started the campaign on Tuesday. Breaking a post-election silence, he issued a communiqué saying that he had spoken by phone with Abdel Basset Sayda, head of the main Syrian opposition group, and that they had together found “great similarities” between the Syrian insurrection and the Libyan revolt that led to the killing of Moammar Gaddafi in October 2011 and the installation of a new government.

The clear implication was that Hollande should be taking the lead in organizing a Western response to the Syrian conflict, just as Sarkozy took the lead on Libya. Sarkozy’s prominent leadership during the Libya crisis was widely applauded in France, which is traditionally eager to show its influence on the international stage.

Sarkozy’s declaration was the signal for a hail of accusations from the former president’s followers.

“Francois Hollande must immediately interrupt his vacation so France can take charge of the swift international reaction called for by Nicolas Sarkozy and Abdel Basset Sayda,” former education minister Frederic Lefebvre said in a statement.

Former lawmaker Nadine Morano added: “Hollande is on vacation and Sarkozy, as well, but as always he is active in showing interest in the Syrian issue, as in 2008 for Georgia.”

In August 2008, Sarkozy broke off his holiday to wage a personal diplomatic offensive designed to halt the war between Russia and neighboring Georgia. After traveling to the area, he won a cease-fire and withdrawal agreement, which was only partly respected but which ended the fighting.

Jean-Francois Cope, secretary general of Sarkozy’s Union for a Popular Movement coalition, joined the chorus Friday, telling Le Figaro newspaper, “I am very concerned by the inertia of French diplomacy.”

He added: “Its leader, Francois Hollande, is present everywhere at his vacation spot, but is totally absent on the international scene.”

Hollande has not responded to his critics. But his foreign minister, Laurent Fabius, expressed surprise that Sarkozy would violate protocol and criticize his successor on a delicate foreign policy problem.

“One would expect something else from a former president,” he said, accusing Sarkozy of seeking to stir up an argument for political ends.

In fact, Sarkozy’s policy on Syria while he was in office was nearly the same as Hollande’s. Both leaders have sought unsuccessfully to persuade Russia and China to endorse a Security Council mandate for greater international intervention to halt the bloodshed. And both have expressed unwillingness to act militarily without such a mandate.

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