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French opposition seeks vote in parliament after surprise Obama turnabout on Syria attack

Francois Fillon, France's ex-prime minister and leading figure in the opposition UMP party, said Sunday that parliament should vote on the issue.
Francois Fillon, France's ex-prime minister and leading figure in the opposition UMP party, said Sunday that parliament should vote on the issue. Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

PARIS – President Barack Obama’s decision to seek congressional authorization for a military strike on Syria has sparked calls for the French parliament to get the same privilege.

The French constitution doesn’t require such a vote unless and until a French military intervention lasts longer than four months, as recently happened in the African country of Mali, where France’s military campaign pushed Islamist rebels out of towns in the north and into remote hideaways.

President Francois Hollande has backed Obama’s call to conduct a military strike against the Syrian government in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack in a Damascus suburb on Aug. 21.

Francois Fillon, France’s ex-prime minister and leading figure in the opposition UMP party, said Sunday that parliament should vote on the issue, telling the Journal du Dimanche newspaper, “In the current circumstances, France cannot go to war without the clear support of parliament.”

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France’s parliament is scheduled to debate the issue Wednesday, but no vote is scheduled.

Another French opposition figure, prominent centrist politician Francois Bayrou, said in an open letter published in Sunday’s Journal du Dimanche that it would be “unthinkable” for Hollande to act without consulting parliament.

Voices from within Hollande’s own party agreed. The head of parliament’s defence committee, Patricia Adam, told the newspaper that she favours the idea on a personal level, and that she “doesn’t see any reason why parliament wouldn’t get a say now when others do.”

Other Socialists, including Interior Minister Manuel Valls and the head of parliament’s foreign affairs committee Elisabeth Guigou, took to Sunday’s TV chat shows to reiterate the government’s stance, backed up by the constitution, that it is Hollande’s prerogative to take the decision for military action.

“We don’t change the constitution based on someone’s mood or on what’s happening in the world,” Valls said on I Tele.

France has echoed U.S. calls for a strong international coalition to take action in Syria, and Valls reiterated Sunday that there is no question of France going it alone in the event the U.S. Congress rejects Obama’s call for action.

Should Hollande decide to heed the calls for a vote, experts said there are two possible scenarios.

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One would be for Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault to make the question part of a confidence vote on his government. That was done in 1991, when parliament backed then-President Francois Mitterand’s decision to join the U.S-led coalition in the Gulf War. A no-vote, although unlikely given the Socialists’ majority in parliament, would bring down the government.

Another article of France’s Constitution gives the government the option of holding a non-binding vote on any question proposed either by the government itself or by a parliamentary group.

Read more: Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval a ‘retreat,’ Syrian state-run paper says