Home > News > World
Friday August 30, 2013 MYT 7:05:03 PM
Friday August 30, 2013 MYT 7:05:03 PM
by catherine bremer AND john irish
France's President Francois Hollande studies his notes before appearing on France 2 television prime time news broadcast for an interview at their studios in Paris, March 28, 2013. REUTERS/Fred Dufour/Pool
PARIS (Reuters) - French President Francois Hollande said a British parliamentary vote against taking military action in Syria would not affect France's will to act to punish Bashar al-Assad's government for a chemical weapons attack on civilians.
Hollande told the daily Le Monde in an interview that he still supported taking firm punitive action over an attack he said had caused irreparable harm to the Syrian people, and said he would work closely with France's allies.
Diplomatic sources said that while Britain's absence from any intervention was a setback and could add to reservations among the French public about strikes, Hollande may now feel he has an even stronger duty to carry through on a promise to punish the perpetrators of the poison gas attack.
"The chemical massacre in Damascus cannot and must not go unpunished. Otherwise we'd run the risk of an escalation that would trivialise the use of these arms and put other countries at risk," Hollande told Le Monde.
Asked if France could take action without Britain, he replied: "Yes. Each country is sovereign to participate or not in an operation. That is valid for Britain as it is for France."
The British parliamentary defeat of a government motion on Syria has called into question Britain's traditional role as Washington's most reliable military ally and complicated U.S.-led efforts to punish Damascus for the attack.
Hollande is not constrained by the need for parliamentary approval of any move to intervene and could act, if he chose, before a French parliamentary debate on Syria set for Wednesday.
Hollande - who has not spoken to British Prime Minister David Cameron since Thursday's vote but will talk on Friday to U.S. President Barack Obama - told Le Monde he would not take a decision to act unless the conditions justified it.
"All the options are on the table. France wants action that is in proportion and firm against the Damascus regime," he said.
"There are few countries that have the capacity to inflict a sanction by the appropriate means. France is one of them. We are ready. We will decide our position in close liaison with our allies."
France and Britain have become close diplomatic allies in the years since their disagreement over joining the 2003 U.S.-led war in Iraq and coordinate closely in defence operations.
Cameron stood shoulder-to-shoulder with Hollande's predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy two years ago when the EU members launched air strikes against the forces of former Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi to stop his crushing of a rebel uprising.
French diplomatic sources said Paris had been braced for a refusal by British MPs to a British role in military action in Syria and, while disappointing, it would likely bolster France's determination to accompany the United States in any action.
"It wasn't a surprise that Cameron lost the vote but it has made Hollande's decision more complicated and more political. There are a lot of parameters to take into account," one senior source told Reuters. "It's not an easy decision, because there is no right answer."
He said France had not yet decided on its course of action but believed that not acting would create a dangerous precedent.
Two opinion polls published this week, and carried out after the gas attack in Damascus, indicated lukewarm support among French voters for military intervention in Syria.
A survey by pollster CSA found 45 percent of respondents would support a U.N. military intervention and 40 percent would be opposed. Separately, 59 percent of people in an IFOP poll did not want France to take part in any intervention.
Hollande, whose popularity has been dogged by the stalled economy, told Le Monde it was now an "established fact" that chemical weapons had been used in Damascus and said France had "a stack of evidence" that Assad's forces were responsible.
"I believe punitive action must be carried out against a regime that is doing irreparable harm to its people," he said.
(Additional reporting by Julien Ponthus and Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Jon Boyle)
Copyright © 1995-2013 Star Publications (M) Bhd (Co No 10894-D)