Hollande Should Stand Firm
Bernard-Henri Lévy on why Hollande should stand firm on Syria.
What a strange climate in my country!
Here we have a determined president whose reaction to the carnage of August 21 on the outskirts of Damascus was right on the mark.
Here we have a president who had the courage to call the gas attack by its right name: a “chemical massacre.”
Here we have a president who did France proud by being the first to speak of the need for a response, pulling a reluctant Barack Obama along, as Nicolas Sarkozy did in Libya.
And what does that president get in return?
A quarrelsome media, sneers and jeers, doubts and suspicions.
He gets the “I’m suspicious” reflex immortalized by Juliet Berto in Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise, a reflex that has become the hallmark of political analysis in this age of generalized conspiracy theories.
He gets the bizarre, almost wicked, elation that one detects in the voices of commentators when they zero in on him, some on his isolation, some on his hastiness, some on the fact that President Obama didn’t refer to him in his speech.
He gets a public that is, generally, less and less embarrassed to admit that this business of the poison gas attack leaves them neither hot nor cold and, now that we’re on the subject of gas, is more worried about the kind that the redoubtable Mr. Putin might turn off this winter, if he gets mad enough.
And beneath it all, he gets a political class that—instead of closing ranks around the commander in chief, as is customary when the country projects military force abroad, and casting aside, however briefly, their legitimate political differences—demonstrates a distressing frivolity that is dangerously close to irresponsibility.
Here we have the extreme-right populist leader Marine Le Pen, always quick with an insult, continuing her father’s tradition of supporting Arab dictatorships, the enemies of law and of France, a defining characteristic of her National Front party.
Here we have her counterpart on the extreme left, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who showed more mettle when he approved Nicolas Sarkozy’s intervention in Libya and whom we would like to hear explain the logic by which the fall of the tyrant Assad can seem less desirable than that of the tyrant Gaddafi. Is it opportunism? Flip-flopism? Blinding hate for his old socialist comrades? Or something else? What?
Here we have the French Communist Party, or at least what’s left of it, launching, through the newspaper L’Humanité, a grand national petition against the war. The petition drive won’t get far, but honestly! The party of martyred maquisards, of the intervention in Spain in 1936, of the international brigades is now rushing to the defense of a potentate who has clearly gone around the bend? Pathetic, truly.
Then we have the moderate right, or at least some of its soloists, whose positions—or rather whose changes of position—leave one bemused. What happened between the moment (March 2012) when former prime minister Dominique de Villepin declared that the time had come for “action on the ground,” consisting of “targeted strikes” against “Syrian civil and military” institutions, and the more recent occasion (a week ago) when he asserted that a strike, “even targeted,” could only “distance us from a political settlement” of the “conflict”? How is it that Jean-François Copé, the leader of our “Republican” party can, in the space of a few days, declare that the French president’s position is “right in form and substance” and then back away from that position on the flimsy and meretricious grounds that the head of state supposedly refused, “stubbornly,” to “meet with opposition leaders and the chairs of parliamentary groups”? And finally, what are we to make of the base of Sarkozy’s party, the UMP, who supported their leader as one—as did the Socialist Party, by the way, led at the time by Mrs. Martine Aubry—when, in March 2011, the urgent task was to save Benghazi and who, now, presented with the opportunity of stopping a massacre that has already left 110,000 people dead, either minces words or opposes Hollande outright?
And then there are the socialists. Those socialists who are always ready to trash the so-called American left and who now suddenly begin daydreaming more or less out loud about acting “like the United States” and claiming their own Warholian 15 minutes of parliamentary fame. But France is not the United States. France’s Constitution specifies a strict time frame within which the executive must inform the legislature of the commitment of military forces. But a prior vote, a vote to authorize that commitment? No. That is neither the letter nor the customary practice of French institutions and would—if somehow the administration were to buckle under pressure—constitute a serious, unprecedented blow to the spirit of our laws.
None of the foregoing is dignified or reasonable.
No more so than the practice, which one hears across the political spectrum, of describing as warmongers those friends of peace and justice who have learned from history that there are times when, alas, force is the only way to induce assassins to listen to reason.
No one is suggesting that we “make war on Syria.”
No one is proposing that we take the place of the Syrians themselves in their twin struggle, their necessary struggle, against dictatorship and Islamic fundamentalism.
But there is such a thing as international law.
And that law assigns to free people the responsibility of protecting those who are not free and who, in an unequal fight, face mass murder.
To subvert or shirk that mandate, to sabotage the just intervention that France, with the United States, has decided to carry out would be a violation of law and a source of lasting discredit to the democracies—a failing that would indeed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, destabilize the world.
Translated by Steven B. Kennedy