French officials have publicly condemned an unofficial meeting in Syria between four French parliamentarians and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad this week.
Speaking on French radio station RMC on Thursday, France's Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the lawmakers had gone "without warning to meet a butcher," and called the Wednesday talks "an ethical transgression."
"They didn't go off to meet with just anyone. They went to meet with Bashar al-Assad, who is responsible for tens of thousands of deaths," he added.
Government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll added to the chorus of reproach, telling a press conference that the recent visit was "in no way an official and diplomatic French initiative," but a "personal" one by the parliamentarians.
The trip, which was not approved by the government, flies in the face of France's diplomatic stance against Syria. France cut all diplomatic ties with the country in 2012, closing its embassy in Damascus in protest over Assad's oppressive regime. Later in 2012, France joined other countries around the world — including the UK, Italy, Germany, and Spain — and expelled its Syrian ambassador.
The French delegation was led by socialist parliament member Gérard Bapt, and also included opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party senator Jean-Pierre Vial, UMP deputy Jacques Myard, and senator François Zocchetto, of the centrist Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) party.
Socialist party secretary Jean-Christophe Cambadélis announced Thursday that he was considering sanctions against Bapt, who also heads up the parliament's France-Syria Friendship Group.
Speaking from Damascus Tuesday, Bapt told French daily Le Monde that the group had "met Bashar al-Assad for over an hour this morning," and described the discussion as "very direct." None of the parliamentarians have revealed the details of their talks with Assad.
As well as meeting Assad, the four-man delegation also sat down with speaker of the people's council Mohamed Jiham Laham, and religious leader Ahmed Badreddin Hassoun, Syria's grand mufti — two high-profile regime supporters. The parliamentarians also visited a hospital.
The controversial visit comes as French lawmakers are divided over France's diplomatic lockdown with Syria, particularly in light of the rising threat of the Islamic State (IS), which has compounded fears caused by the recent terror attacks in Europe.
Many believe France needs Syria's support to fight the two countries' common enemy, and that dialogue is the only way forward — a position not endorsed by French President François Hollande, who refuses to strike IS positions in Syria, for fear that such an operation would indirectly benefit the regime.
Myard, an outspoken politician who has served as a conservative deputy for more than 20 years, justified the visit to French daily Libération, saying that, "Many of us, in the right and in the left, believe that we're going about this the wrong way. They tell us we shouldn't speak with the devil, with those who have blood on their hands. Well, that's a lot of people, and I'm of the belief that the devil has some smart things to say."
This back-room summit may end up influencing the future of Franco-Syrian relations. While top officials denounced the visit, others in parliament have shown support for Myard and his colleagues. Pierre Lellouche, who is also a member of the France-Syria Friendship Group, told French daily Le Monde that he didn't always agree with the government's standpoint vis à vis Syria.
"I've always said that France's political stance, [foreign minister] Laurent Fabius' 'neither/nor" attitude, neither IS nor Assad, was problematic," he told Le Monde. "But I wouldn't have gone there under the current circumstances, because it could easily be manipulated by the powers that be."
Lawmaker Alain Marsaud, a memeber of the opposition UMP party, took to Twitter on Wednesday to explain why he had declined to join the delegation.
"I am not in Damascus because I knew Assad would be setting out a trap for us," he said, "in order to try and get official recognition from France."
Speaking to France 24 on Wednesday, Marsaud criticized French foreign policy, and accused the French government of "supporting the jihadists against the Assad regime under the pretext of helping the Free Syrian Army." He predicted a foreign policy u-turn in the not so distant future, and said that the unofficial parliamentary visit may have helped kickstart future negotiations.
Suivez Mélodie Bouchaud sur Twitter: @meloboucho