If France and the United States are ever going to move beyond French opposition to the Iraq War, this could be the time.
After Britain on Friday opted out of a possible military strike against Syria, France and the U.S. were left standing as the two countries most vocally contemplating armed action against Bashar Assad's regime over a suspected chemical weapons attack on his own people.
During the two-year uprising in Syria, France has taken a hard line against Assad. Unlike Britain's prime minister, French President Francois Hollande doesn't need parliamentary approval to launch military action. In any case, his Socialist party and its allies control both legislative houses, even if his poll numbers have been dismal recently.
President Barack Obama and Hollande spoke by phone Friday about Syria, and “share certainty about the chemical nature of the attack and the unmistakable responsibility of the Damascus regime,” an official in Hollande's office said on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. The two leaders are “of one mind” about the situation, the official said.
Michael O'Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution in the United States, quipped Friday on the BBC: “We're all over here learning French, saying 'Vive la France!' That's the new thing.”
For over 200 years, France and America have been allies - if at times uncomfortable and contradictory ones. The most recent low ebb came after France - unlike Britain - refused in 2003 to join President George W. Bush's march to war to depose Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Paris was doubtful about Bush administration claims that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction.
American anger bubbled up. “Freedom fries” were born. Some Americans turned up their noses at French wine. France was mocked as a member of the “Axis of Weasels.” Frenchmen were ridiculed as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys.”
Despite that blip, France and the United States aren't as strange bedfellows as it might seem: They are generally aligned on big global security issues. France is a nuclear-armed permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, a key member of the European Union, and along with Britain the biggest military power in Western Europe.
A look at some of the ups and downs in U.S.-French relations:
- The alliance was largely born when the Marquis de Lafayette helped Gen. George Washington on the way to defeating the British and winning independence for America. Many Americans can trace their ancestry to France, whose influence can still be seen in such place names as St. Louis, New Rochelle and Louisiana. The French mostly stayed out of the Civil War and donated the Statue of Liberty to America in the late 19th century.
- Many French feel the United States returned the favor for the Revolutionary-era support - and then some - by sending troops to fight in Europe during both world wars. France is well into planning for next year's 70th anniversary celebration of the D-Day landings in Normandy, a region unwavering in its appreciation today.
- But after that war, Gen. Charles de Gaulle set in motion decades of mutual suspicion in 1966 by withdrawing France from the NATO command and evicting allied troops and bases from France. That assertion of French independence at the height of the Cold War came as a shock to the United States.
- In 1983, the United States called off at the last minute a joint French-U.S. punitive action against Hezbollah in Lebanon over a double bombing in Beirut that killed more than 240 American servicemen and 58 French paratroopers. Defense analyst Francois Heisbourg calls it “the most comparable scenario” to any joint French-American action in Syria today. (France and the U.S. later carried out separate strikes against Hezbollah.)
- In 1986, relations soured again after the Socialist-led French government refused to let U.S. fighter planes fly over France on their way to bomb Libya, forcing the jets to take a long, circuitous route. Then-President Francois Mitterrand still lined up with the United States and contributed military power for the 1991 Gulf War against Saddam.
- After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, French President Jacques Chirac was the first foreign leader to visit New York and inspect the remains of the World Trade Center. France joined the United States in the campaign against the Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and retains a military presence in the war-battered country today.
- Under Chirac, France vocally opposed the U.S. march toward war against Saddam in 2003, with his foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, making an impassioned speech at the U.N. Security Council. Many French today praise Chirac for keeping France out of the war. But behind the scenes, French and American services have worked closely in recent years in the fight against international terrorism.
- In 2009, President Nicolas Sarkozy - seen by many as the most America-friendly leader of postwar France - capped a gradual return to NATO by reintegrating France into its military command. Under Sarkozy, France took a leading role along with Britain in the NATO-led air campaign that helped bring down Libya's Moammar Qaddafi. The United States played a crucial background role.
- But last year, Hollande made good on a campaign promise and re-asserted French independence by pulling France's combat troops out of Afghanistan ahead of NATO's timetable.
- This year, the United States gave political backing and logistical and intelligence support to France as its troops rushed to the rescue of Mali's embattled government and ousted al-Qaida-linked radicals who had seized control of part of the former French colony.