The three leaders of France’s main opposition party, the UMP, wrote an open letter to President François Hollande on Wednesday urging intervention in the Middle East and criticizing the Elysée’s current foreign policy in that region. The missive penned by Alain Juppé, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and François Fillon – all former prime ministers — was published in the country’s leading daily Le Monde. The first sentence: “The Middle East is burning and Europe is looking elsewhere.”
Yet, the missive coincides with France’s decision to send arms to embattled Kurdish fighters facing Sunni insurgents in Iraq, who have trapped members of the Yazidi religious minority on a remote mountain in northern Iraq. (This, as Baghdad continues to grapple with a difficult political transition.) Now, France is joining the United States in sending military and humanitarian aid to Iraq – though no manpower – as much of Europe stands back.
Meanwhile, a political calculus is at play back home. Yes, the triumvirate at the head of the UMP may indeed be troubled by France’s inaction in Iraq and Gaza. But it’s important to note the party’s need to rebound from recent scandal and public infighting in preparation for the 2017 presidential race. The party has been making moves to repair its reputation – see the recent interview that could herald the return of potential presidential candidate (and former UMP leader) Nicolas Sarkozy – and attack the opposition. In their letter, the trio maintains that Hollande’s foreign policy has shifted between passivity and conformity (Syria alone gives weight to that critique) and that inaction in Iraq could have disastrous consequences on domestic security.
The message will find an apt audience. The number of locally grown jihadists leaving France to fight foreign wars is growing. On Wednesday, French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve stated that several hundred French nationals have likely joined the Sunni rebellion fighting in Iraq. But here Hollande is pushing back. By breaking rank with the rest of Europe, the French president runs the risk of garnering critiques of interventionism — something he’s been trying to shy away from, at least in Africa. However, Hollande also has the chance to beat his pesky reputation as a flaccid, hesitant leader. The tactic worked in Mali, albeit temporarily; after unilaterally launching Operation Serval to roust Islamist fighters from the African country, Hollande saw a brief boost to his flagging approval ratings.
It could work again, especially if the Elysée stresses the sympathy angle of saving persecuted Christian minorities — a strategy already adopted by the UMP. In their letter to Hollande, Fillon, Juppé and Raffarin note that for the past five centuries, France has had “a mission to protect the Christians of the Middle East.” But if the Iraq crisis continues to escalate, so will questions about the extent of French aid. Patrick Roger of Le Monde notes a few:
[Should France] intervene militarily? Within which framework? Should it arm the forces battling EI [Islamic State] jihadists? Under what controls? Which diplomatic channel? Under which mandate? With what partners?
With so many unknowns, look for Hollande to proceed cautiously, even as his opponents continue to play their long game with the president firmly in their crosshairs.