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Emmanuel Macron, third right, at a meeting of France’s defence council in Paris on 14 April. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

Macron’s bid to look strong on Syria could weaken him in France

On Syria, as with most topics, Emmanuel Macron is certain he has made the right call. In a TV interview on Sunday night, the French president described Saturday’s strikes in Syria, led by the US, Britain and France, as “a military success”​. The operation, which targeted chemical weapons facilities in Damascus and near Homs in retaliation for the suspected use of poison gas on civilians in Douma on 7 April, was Macron’s first major international military decision. “It is the international community that intervened,” he said​.

The use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, Macron had said prior to the strikes, was France’s “red line”. In June last year, the French president told the Guardian:​ ​ “If chemical weapons are used on the ground and we know how to find out their provenance, France will launch strikes to destroy the chemical weapons stocks.” And he admitted: “When you fix red lines, if you don’t know how to make sure they are respected, you’re choosing to be weak.”

To Macron, after the Douma attack, weakness was not an option: “We had reached a point where these strikes were necessary to give back the international community some credibility,” he said on Sunday, adding that failing to enforce red lines had led Russia, which backs Bashar al-Assad in Syria, to think of the international community as “nice” and “weak”. Just like Barack Obama before him, Macron had set his own rule and now had to respect it. Unlike Obama in 2013, he followed through.

In France, the strikes have been met with scepticism from left and right. In op-eds in Le Monde, experts warned about the “outdated” ​and “purely reactive”​ logic of the strikes that complicate a game in which Assad probably “feels bolstered”. Although Macron received the full support of his party, La République en Marche, and thus of many in the Socialist party, the hard-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon has called the strikes “an irresponsible escalation” ​and regretted that Macron acted “without a UN mandate, a European agreement or a French parliamentary vote”. For Le Pen, Macron has “violated international law”.

As commander-in-chief of the army, the French president was within his rights in ordering the strikes (the constitution stipulates that the government has to notify parliament of such military decisions within three days). Yet Macron’s choice to look strong abroad could weaken him at home. Having met resistance to his reforms of the public sector, he isn’t doing so well domestically: his opinion ratings have fallen to 40%​, his lowest score since his election last May. Foreign affairs is usually his forte – it is nationally acknowledged that this young, modern president has done wonders for France’s image abroad, leading the fight against climate change and standing up to Donald Trump. The French are used to Macron doing the right thing, at least internationally; now they aren’t so sure.

It’s important he doesn’t look “weak” to the Russians, but what if the French don’t like him looking “strong”? The country doesn’t tend to welcome military interventions abroad. In 2003, when Jacques Chirac’s government refused to follow the US and the UK to Iraq, the decision was hailed as a good one domestically. Some 77% of the French people were against a war against Saddam Hussein’s regime. In a TV address​, Chirac declared that “war is a sign of failure”. To this day, Iraq remains the mistake the French are proud not to have partaken in.

The contrast with 2003 is striking because it is symbolic, too. Macron did not just bypass the French parliament, he also acted without a mandate from the United Nations. It was at the UN that Chirac’s prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, gave a famous speech in 2003, sending a strong message to the international community and making his mark in the history of foreign affairs. (It has even been immortalised in a French graphic novel​, Quai d’Orsay, which was adapted for the cinema in 2013​.)

Macron has been compared to Tony Blair countless times – for his youthfulness, his sweeping victory, for uniting left and right, for his liberal policies. Let’s hope that intervention in Syria doesn’t present another opportunity for a darker comparison.

Pauline Bock is a French journalist based in Britain. She writes for the New Statesman

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