France's President Can Bypass Parliament On Syria, But He Shouldn't
President Hollande has the power to strike militarily without parliamentary consent. But democratic and political necessities require it.
PARIS – It seems like a basic necessity of democracy: The French Parliament should not only debate, but also vote on any potential French participation in an intervention against Syria.
Members of the opposition from the right, center, as well as Green and Communist party members on the left: all are demanding such a vote, invoking the examples of both the United Kingdom and the United States. A few days ago, Prime Minister David Cameron had to accept the House of Commons rejection of a British commitment to participating in a strike agains Syria. As for President Barack Obama, he decided to submit his initiative to Congress.
Can we do less in Paris?
Let’s be clear: Even if it may be politically necessary for the head of state to call on Parliament to vote, it cannot become an automatic right. That is for one simple reason: The French Constitution excludes such a parliamentary prerogative, except in the case of a full-fledged “declaration of war.”
The recent 2008 constitutional review made the rule clearer in the case of a military intervention in a foreign country, stating that “The government shall inform the Parliament of its decision to have the armed forces intervene abroad, at the latest three days after the beginning of the intervention. It shall detail the objectives of said intervention. This information may give rise to a debate, which shall not be followed by a vote.”
It could hardly be clearer: the duty of informing and explaining, yes; the right to vote, no. The vote is only mandatory for the authorization to continue an intervention beyond four months. Everyone may consider this rule to be archaic and rather undemocratic. It is not a sufficient reason to change the country’s Basic Law at the whim of circumstances and moods.
Look to 1991
Still, nothing prevents the President and the government from consulting Parliament and asking its members to vote. President François Mitterrand and his Prime Minister Michel Rocard did so in 1991, before the French participation in the First Gulf War. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin refused to do it in 2001, when France joined the coalition against the Afghan Taliban regime.
In Syria’s case, today, François Hollande would do well to follow the precedent of 1991. For three reasons. First, after the example just set by the American President, he could consider a Parliament vote a useful pedagogical exercise for the nation, and would give more power to his decision to “punish” the Syrian regime.
Then, the head of state cannot invoke a matter of urgency, unlike France's recent intervention in Mali, which required, in order to be a success, an immediate reaction from the head of the armed forces. Obama’s decision to consult Congress gives Hollande time to organize not only Wednesday's debate, but also a second debate — and a vote — soon after.
It is also worth noting that before the 2004 Iraq War, Hollande, who was then the head of the Socialist party, had asked for a Parliament vote on a United Nations resolution which was to act as the basis for an American-led intervention.
Finally, if he had not explicitly mentioned a new review of the Constitution, the then presidential candidate Hollande had nonetheless promised, on March 11, 2012, “an in-depth dialogue with Parliament” in the case of overseas operations.
Why not engage in such a dialogue? It is now or never.