French Parliament To Debate U.S.-Led Strikes In Syria

French lawmakers on Wednesday will debate how to respond to an alleged chemical attack in Syria. France made public intelligence documents suggesting the Syrian government was behind the attack. At the same time, the French newspaper, Le Figaro, published an interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Francois Hollande, the president of France, says his country will join in any U.S.-led strikes in Syria. The French parliament is set to take up that issue today. Unlike Britain, which ruled out military action, and the U.S. Congress where President Obama still has to win the votes, it seems like parliament probably should provide very little trouble for Hollande. His party dominates there.

So let's go to NPR's Eleanor Beardsley. She's in Paris, and she's following this story. Hi, Eleanor.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: OK. So France's parliament doesn't even have to vote here?

BEARDSLEY: That's right. The French constitution gives the French president very wide powers to conduct such military actions without any kind of parliamentary approval, unless they go on beyond four months. So the parliament is expected to debate Syrian intervention today, but not vote on it. President Hollande was ready to go last week. He was ready to back the U.S. and conduct these strikes. And, you know, Obama's turnabout on Saturday - when he said he was going to see congressional approval - really stunned France, and it put Hollande in a bind.

So now the French president feels that he does have to at least hold a democratic debate over the issue, especially since the British parliament also debated it.

INSKEEP: OK. So they will discuss it, but not vote. Presuming that nothing happens that would cause the French president to change his mind, what role would France play in any strikes?

BEARDSLEY: Well, France has long-range air-to-surface missiles, Scout missiles with a range of about 200 miles. And military strategists are talking about using Rafale jets to shoot these missiles at Syrian targets. France has a very high-tech frigate in the waters off Syria. The French defense minister says the country is ready to conduct high-tech, precise strikes against Syrian targets to back up whatever the U.S. does.

INSKEEP: I suppose we should mention, Eleanor Beardsley, that France has long-standing ties with Syria. France was once the colonial power that dominated Syria. And as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad tries to make his case to the world, he spoke with a French paper. What did he say?

BEARDSLEY: That's right. He did give an interview with a French newspaper, Le Figaro. It was one of the first times he spoke with the Western media in long time. He warned France and America that if they acted, it could be the fuse that would set this powder keg alight. He called the region a powder keg, ready to explode.

Of course, he denied the chemical attack. And he said he's fighting terrorists. He called who he's fighting 90 percent terrorists. So, it was the usual language.

What was interesting about the interview is the interviewer spoke about meeting Assad on the radio, on French radio. He said, you know, he met him just in a private house in Damascus surrounded by pine trees. He said there was basically no security. He wasn't even frisked. He said it was clear that Assad wanted to give the impression of someone who was relaxed, not at all living in fear and hunkered down in a bunker, even though the war was going on just a few kilometers away.

INSKEEP: So this interview goes out to the French public. What are people in France thinking about this prospective war?

BEARDSLEY: Well, two-thirds of the French are against it. And this debate in parliament is to sort of bring out the proof that the French intelligence had, and to sort of try to convince people. But Hollande is going to go ahead, anyway. He's just standing by, waiting for the U.S. Congress to act. Hollande feels it's the moral duty of international community to respond. And he has said that if the West doesn't act, it could even be more dangerous. Assad could do it again. And it could give the green light to other dictators who might want to use chemical weapons on their populations.

And, Steve, you have to remember that France is just coming out of a successful intervention. This year, in January, France sent 4,000 soldiers - ground troops - into Mali to push out Islamist extremists that had taken over the north of the country. And, you know, eight months later, those extremists are gone, and the country just held a democratic, successful presidential election. So after that successful intervention, Hollande feels that France knows how to do this.

INSKEEP: Eleanor Beardsley, in Paris. Thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: Good to be with you, Steve.

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