While Britain Votes No, France Still Backs Strikes On Syria

Only 10 years ago, the French were derided in Washington political circles for their rejection of plans to invade Iraq. Now the so-called "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" are standing by the U.S. on Syria — while the country's closest European ally, Britain, has rejected military action.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

The U.S. will not be acting alone if and when it launches military strikes against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. French President Francois Hollande spoke with President Obama today. France and the U.S. will act together after congressional discussions.

As NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, this Franco-American alliance is a complete turnabout from the lead up to the war in Iraq 10 years ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRITISH PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The British parliament's rejection Friday of any involvement in military strikes against the Syrian regime stunned France, as scenes of the parliamentary debate played out on French television.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRITISH PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE)

BEARDSLEY: But it did nothing to sway the resolve of French President Francois Hollande, who said France remained with the U.S., and was determined to act.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT FRANCOIS HOLLANDE: (Through translator) The chemical massacre carried out by Damascus cannot go without a response. And France is ready to punish whoever took the sickening decision to gas innocent people.

BEARDSLEY: What an enormous difference from a decade ago, when then British Prime Minister Tony Blair was America's staunch ally, and France vehemently opposed invading Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN: (Foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: Back then, when French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin gave his famous U.N. speech calling plans to invade Iraq a huge mistake, many Americans saw France as a traitor. French wine was poured into the streets, and French fries were renamed freedom fries.

Today, with hindsight, most people believe France was right. Dominique Moisi with the French Institute for International Relations says the reversed roles for France and Britain with regard to Syria are a direct consequence of the blunders in Iraq.

DOMINIQUE MOISI: Ten years ago, Britain was with George W. Bush, and weapons of mass destruction were not to be found in Iraq. Because Blair was wrong in 2003, the British are mistrusting their government in 2013. Because France didn't go to war over Iraq, Francois Hollande is much freer to go against Syria.

BEARDSLEY: Ian Bond, foreign policy analyst at the Centre for European Reform, says for the superficial observer, Syria feels a bit like Iraq 10 years ago with Blair and his dodgy dossier from British intelligence.

IAN BOND: We have a dossier from the joint intelligence committee. It doesn't say 100 percent that we are certain that it was the Syrian regime that fired these weapons. And you've got a sort of rush to try and get something done even before the U.N. inspectors have finished their work and reported and so on.

BEARDSLEY: But, of course, says Bond, there are many differences with Iraq, and near certain proof that Assad knowingly killed more than 1,000 of his own citizens. But Bond says Britain is weary of being abroad.

France has been extremely active on the world stage of late. The French military was at the forefront of the NATO-led attacks on Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, and France sent 4,000 troops to the African nation of Mali to help route Islamist radicals who had taken over the north of the country. Moisi says both interventions had French public support.

MOISI: There is, culturally, a French enthusiasm for intervention abroad. I intervened therefore I am.

BEARDSLEY: And it's a question of colonial era history, says Moisi.

MOISI: We have links with Syria and Lebanon which the British do not have. We were in Beirut and Damascus. So there is a legacy.

BEARDSLEY: Even though two thirds of the French oppose striking Syria, French president Hollande and his ally President Obama are alike in their determination to send the Syrian regime a strong message: that the world will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

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