France is preparing to launch airstrikes against Islamic State in Syria, French President François Hollande said on Monday, expanding his nation's involvement in the Syrian conflict.
Mr. Hollande has previously ordered strikes against Islamic State in Iraq but steered clear of striking the group in Syria for fear the attacks would bolster Syrian strongmanBashar al-Assad, the jihadists' main foe in the civil war.
“Nothing should be done to consolidate or keep Assad in power in Syria," Mr. Hollande said at a news conference where he laid out his policy priorities for the next six months.
The decision to bomb in Syria appears to reflect concern among French officials about Islamic State's ability to mount a terrorist attack against France from its Syrian strongholds, where several hundred French citizens are believed to be fighting alongside the group. Mr. Hollande said reconnaissance flights over Islamic State positions in Syria would begin Tuesday to identify potential targets.
“Today, in Syria, what we want to know is, what is being prepared against us and what is being done against the Syrian populations," Mr. Hollande said.
After those efforts, “we will be ready to conduct strikes," he said.
Of particular concern are Islamic State's efforts to boost its capabilities in areas such as passport forging that would help the group move fighters into Europe for an attack, said Jean-Luc Marret, research director at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a defense think tank.
“You can see a sort of growing, systematic organization of [these activities]," Mr. Marret said. “That was not the case six months ago."
The U.S. and Arab allies, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have been bombing Islamic State's positions in Syria for nearly a year, months after the group broke out of Syria and rampaged across northern Iraq. Those airstrikes helped defeat the group in some key battles, such as in the Syrian city of Kobani. But the attacks have been unable to shake Islamic State's control of large swaths of Syrian territory.
In the wide-ranging news conference Mr. Hollande struck a hopeful note on the conflict in Ukraine, calling for a summit in Paris with German Chancellor Angela Merkel,Ukrainian President Petro Porochenko and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The peace agreement signed in Minsk earlier this year appears to be holding, Mr. Hollande said, possibly paving the way for Western sanctions against Russia to be lifted.
Mr. Hollande also outlined his economic agenda, pledging tax cuts on households by at least €2 billion ($2.23 billion) in the 2016 budget. The cuts will affect around eight million French households and return taxation on individuals to a level similar to 2010, Mr. Hollande said.
“For me it was very important for middle classes to be the target of tax cuts," the president said.
Mr. Hollande faces a stubborn popularity deficit with less than two years to the next elections and an unemployment rate over 10%. According to a survey of 1,002 by Ifop on Sept. 3 and Sept. 4, only 22% of French people want Mr. Hollande to stand for re-election in 2017. If the election took place now he would be knocked out in the first round.
Mr. Hollande angered voters by raising taxes sharply when he took office in 2012 and again in 2013; he backtracked partially in 2014 by pledging to cut business taxes in a bid to encourage investment and employment. But economic growth failed to rebound strongly last year, unemployment kept rising, and Mr. Hollande, a Socialist, faced a backlash from lawmakers in his own party who objected to the pro-business shift.
Mr. Hollande pledged Monday his policies would help deliver an acceleration in economic growth to 1.5% in 2016 from the 1% the government expects this year.
Opposition parties were quick to criticize Mr. Hollande's plans.
“There is every reason to be cautious about these purely electoral and desperate announcements," said Edouard Courtial, a member of former President Nicolas Sarkozy's center right party Les Républicains.