France says will conduct
air strikes in Iraq

PARIS - President Francois Hollande announced Thursday that France has decided to conduct air strikes in Iraq, where militants from the Islamic State group have terrorized large parts of the population.


France will join the United States in providing what Hollande called "aerial support" for the Iraqi army in fighting jihadists who have taken over nearly half of the violence-ridden country.


"I decided to respond to the request of the Iraqi authorities to offer aerial support," Hollande told reporters at a rare press conference during which he will also face a grilling on France's dire economic and political situation.


France has already conducted reconnaissance flights over Iraq that started Monday, when Paris hosted a major international conference on the crisis that saw some 30 countries and international organizations pledge to support Iraq "by any means necessary, including appropriate military assistance."


It has also dispatched weapons to the Kurdish forces fighting the IS group and Hollande praised them for making "the best use of" them when he visited Iraq late last week -- the most high-profile leader to do so since jihadists stormed across the country.


But unlike the United States, Hollande was clear that France would not intervene in Syria, where IS militants also control swathes of territory.


He added: "We will not go further than that. There will be no ground troops and we will only intervene in Iraq."


The lightning offensive of the well-organized and well-funded Islamic State group has shocked the world, particularly as nationals from several European countries have travelled to Iraq and Syria to fight alongside jihadists.


Authorities in these countries -- which include France, Britain and Germany -- fear that those same nationals may return and launch attacks on home turf.


France's Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said Sunday that around 930 French citizens or residents, including at least 60 women, were either actively engaged in jihad in Iraq and Syria or were planning to go.


In response, France's lower house National Assembly on Thursday approved an "anti-terrorism" bill which will usher in a travel ban on anyone suspected of planning to wage jihad abroad.


Foreign policy aside, the deeply unpopular Hollande was due to face a host of questions from French and foreign media about his country's political and economic woes.


A party rebellion, an emergency cabinet reshuffle, record high unemployment and record low popularity: Hollande has endured punch after punch in the past month or so.


But perhaps the most painful blow was from a woman scorned, as his former partner Valerie Trierweiler painted him as a cold and power-crazed leader who secretly despises the poor in a best-selling kiss-and-tell.


However, Hollande does have some good news to cling onto after his government won a crucial vote of confidence in the parliament on Tuesday -- albeit narrowly and with more rebel MPs than he would have liked.


Manuel Valls, the previously popular prime minister who has been dragged down in Hollande's wake, described the vote as a "turning point" and the news conference was the next stage of that process.


Political analysts however were skeptical that Hollande could turn the corner.


"In the short term, I do not see what could make him rebound," said Frederic Dabi from the polling company Ifop, as Hollande stagnates at a record low of 13 percent in the opinion polls.


"The dreadful sequence of events he has suffered show that it's not a problem of political skill, economic skill but also personal skills. There is a doubt about the person himself. It's difficult to rectify that," added Pascal Perrineau from the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.