Fall of Aleppo reveals fault lines in French politics

The end of the battle for Syria's second city and the plight of its civilians have drawn different responses from across France's political spectrum. On the Right the line taken by conservative presidential candidate François Fillon has been close to that of the far-right Front National, with his defence of the Assad regime and Vladimir Putin. The ruling Socialist Party and the Greens have emphasised their support for Syria's opposition, while the radical left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon has adopted an anti-imperialist stance, with the United States as his main target. Lénaïg Bredoux, Lucie Delaporte and Christophe Gueugneau report.

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The fall of Aleppo has revealed the splits and different lines both within and between France's different political movements. On the Right, the newly-designated candidate for next year's presidential campaign, François Fillon, has set himself apart from many of his own political camp in his support for Russia leader Vladimir Putin and even for Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Indeed, his line has been close to that of the far-right Front National. On the other hand the ruling Socialist Party and the Greens have unhesitatingly condemned the dictatorial Syrian regime and supported the non-jihadist elements of the Syrian opposition. As for the radical left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélencon, he has adopted an anti-imperialist stance that has created some lively controversy.

François Fillon used a short press release on Thursday December 15th to break his lengthy silence since the fall of Aleppo. “We need indignation but that has never saved a life,” he explained. “There are only two solutions to stop the massacre,” said Fillon who, isolated in his own political family, has for months been advocating a strategic alliance with the regime in Damascus.

The first solution, he says, is a “military intervention that only the Americans can conduct”. He does not back this approach “taking into account what happened in Iraq”. The second approach, which he does support, is “a powerful European diplomatic initiative to get around the table all those people who can stop this conflict, without excluding anyone, thus including those who are committing crimes today”. François Fillon believes that resuming a dialogue with Assad and also Putin is the only way out of the Syrian conflict.

François Fillon speaking about Syria in September 2015.

A few weeks ago Fillon refused to speak of “war crimes” in Aleppo. “One mustn't use words like that without being able to verify them,” he told the France 2 television programme L’Émission politique. “When you're at war, you must choose your main opponent,” Fillon wrote in his book Vaincre le totalitarisme islamique ('Defeating Islamic Totalitarianism') published by Albin Michel in 2016, justifying closer links with Damascus and Moscow. “There are two camps in Syria and not three as is said,” he also declared on October 13th during one of the conservative primary debates, referring to supporters of a “totalitarian Islamic regime” and “the others”- forgetting the non-jihadist elements of the Syrian opposition. “I choose the others because I consider that the danger there is too serious for world peace,” he said.

But on Thursday December 15th, in keeping with his desire to reunite his political family after his victory, Fillon named one of his primary rivals Bruno Le Maire as his “representative for European and international affairs”. This however is the same Bruno Le Maire who supported diametrically opposed views to Fillon on Syria during that primary contest, going so far as advocating military intervention on the ground led by France. “France must take the leadership of a European coalition that will bring together European states and some states in the region. There is an alternative choice between alignment with the United States and blind veneration of Russia: independence,” he told Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper. So does choosing Le Maire mean that Fillon is changing his line? “There is no reorientation and there's only one leader, that's François Fillon,” says his spokesman Thierry Solère.

Nonetheless, the pro-Assad line taken by some of Fillon's traditional supporters, such as the Member of Parliament Thierry Mariani who welcomed the fall of Aleppo (see Tweet below), risks causing problems for the conservative presidential candidate. Many of their positions on the subject could be mistaken for the line adopted by the far-right Front National (FN).

Front National: initial silence on Aleppo and support for Putin and Assad

The FN's president Marine Le Pen did not immediately react after Aleppo fell to a regime that she has always defended. Yet on Monday, following a bloody attack on a Coptic church in Cairo, the FN presidential candidate immediately issued a statement of support for Egypt's Christians who had been “savagely attacked by Islamic fundamentalism”.

FN vice-president Florian Philippot, however, did respond to the latest news from Syria. “Aleppo was infested with Islamists, that doesn't mean that there are no tragedies involving civilians … there are,” he told BFMTV on Thursday. He repeated the FN line on the issue, saying that the West had to speak to Russia. “Rather than observe and complain, we should have been an actor …. France should have worked to create a real global coalition with the United States, with European states including France and also with Russia: that would have been more responsible,” he said.

In addition to its close links with Russia, particularly financial ones (see for example Mediapart's story here), the FN has always followed the Assad regime's propaganda, almost to the letter. In 2013 MP Marion Maréchal-Le Pen claimed that the Syrian regime permitted the “peaceful” coexistence of minorities “who tomorrow will be massacred”. Meanwhile Marine Le Pen's entourage has on occasions had business links with the Assad regime. As Mediapart has revealed, a company called Riwal, run by Le Pen's official advisor Frédéric Chatillon, received between 100,000 euros and 150,000 euros a year from Damascus for handling the regime's public relations.

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