President Trump dialed back Wednesday’s threats of missile strikes against Syria in a tweet this morning, saying they “Could be very soon or not so soon at all!” Secretary of Defense James Mattis asserted meanwhile that the U.S. is “still assessing the intelligence” on whether the Syrian regime conducted the recent chemical attack, a charge that the Bashar al-Assad regime and Russia both deny.
But at the same time, French President Emmanuel Macron was dialing up the rhetoric, saying France already has “proof” that the Syrian government carried out the attack on the town of Douma and would decide in due course whether to respond with airstrikes. It’s not clear what evidence Macron is referring to—OPCW inspectors are currently deploying to Douma—but Macron has previously declared chemical weapons use to be a red line that would result in “reprisals and an immediate riposte, at least where France is concerned.” Macron is among the leaders with whom Trump has discussed potential reprisals, and France is likely the other country that will play a role in any strikes. A French warship equipped with 16 cruise missiles and 16 surface-to-air missiles is currently operating in the Eastern Mediterranean and there are also French fighter jets stationed in Jordan and the UAE.
Many Americans have an outdated view of France as dovish and anti-interventionist, dating back to the “freedom fries” era leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. In fact, the country has emerged as one of the more aggressive Western powers when it comes to intervention in the Middle East and North Africa, sometimes even more aggressive than the United States.
Then-President Nicolas Sarkozy was the most enthusiastic proponent of NATO intervention Libya in 2011. (This looks a bit fishy in retrospect given what’s since been alleged about his relationship with former Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi.) Francois Hollande launched an intervention during his presidency to counter Islamist militants in Mali in 2013—hundreds of French troops remain on the ground there—and launched a major raid on ISIS in Syria after the 2015 Paris terror attacks. Hollande also supported military action against Assad after the 2013 chemical attack in Syria, but was unwilling to go it alone after both the United States and Britain decided against it. He later criticized Obama for failing to enforce his “red line” on chemical weapons use.
Before last year’s election, Macron criticized his predecessors for contributing to the destabilization of the Middle East, but there’s been a fair amount of continuity in his approach, says Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, a former foreign ministry staffer who is now head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Macron’s toughness echoes Hollande’s,” he told me. “He has settled for a very realist policy, even more security-driven given the rise of the terrorist threat.”
Lafont Rapnouil said that Macron’s own chemical weapons “red line” was about France “confirming that its ambition remains to play an active role in the Middle East on par with great powers, i.e., to continue to punch above its weight.” Given that Macron initially declared that red line last May during a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin, it should also be read in the context of French-Russian relations. “Macron had promised to repair relations with Russia that had been badly damaged under Hollande, but he wanted to show that he could discuss with Putin and still be firm,” Lafont Rapnouil said. “Stating two red lines on Syria—chemical weapons and humanitarian access—was meant to show he remained uncompromising.” In any event, not much has come of Macron’s efforts to engage Putin. France recently expelled four Russian diplomats, part of a coordinated global response to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain.
Macron’s decision to stand with the U.S. on the need to punish Assad is also interesting given his generally wary stance toward Trump. Macron has differed sharply with Trump on issues including climate change, EU integration, the Iran nuclear deal, trade policy, and Jerusalem, and at times has seemed to positioning himself as a sort of “anti-Trump,” defending the liberal world order and traditional institutions from the U.S. president’s wrecking ball.
On the other hand, he has also sought to maintain good personal relations with Trump, inviting him to Paris as a special guest for Bastille Day last year, which included a military parade that so wowed the president that he has sought to emulate it in Washington. “Since the very start, Macron has been able to reconcile a strong bilateral relationship with the U.S. and major disagreements with Trump,” Lafont Rapnouil says. “Independence is still a central idea in French foreign policy.”
Trump will host Macron in Washington for a state visit this month—his first official state visit of Trump’s presidency. They will have plenty to talk about.