François Hollande vows to defend democracy as popularity tanks

French president slams terrorists, the right and City of London in combative speech

French president François Hollande: His Socialist Party faithful gave him a standing ovation before he started  his speech in Paris on Thursday  entitled “Democracy Facing Terrorism” but a recent poll suggests that 88 per cent of French voters do not want him to seek re-election. Photograph: Christophe Ena/Pool/Reuters

French president François Hollande: His Socialist Party faithful gave him a standing ovation before he started his speech in Paris on Thursday entitled “Democracy Facing Terrorism” but a recent poll suggests that 88 per cent of French voters do not want him to seek re-election. Photograph: Christophe Ena/Pool/Reuters

 

Hundreds of Socialist Party faithful assembled in a theatre near the Arc de Triomphe on Thursday to hear François Hollande’s speech entitled “Democracy Facing Terrorism”.

They gave the French president a standing ovation before he started speaking, laughed at his feeble jokes and applauded each time he insulted his right-wing opponents.

The speech was billed as a major address by the president’s acolytes, but it was more, in the words of David Revault d’Allonnes of Le Monde, “a distress signal from a sinking ship.”

Two devastating opinion polls had just been published. The first showed that Emmanuel Macron, the 38-year-old former Hollande protege who resigned as economy minister on August 30th, would defeat Hollande by up to six percentage points in the first round of the presidential election.

The second showed that 88 per cent of the French do not want Mr Hollande to seek re-election – a 4 per cent rise since July. Nearly three-quarters of left-wing voters oppose a second term for him.

On the subject of the day – fighting terrorism – 67 per cent of respondents judged Hollande’s record negatively.

Having “led the battle against murderous fanaticism for more than four years,” Mr Hollande said, “I have no doubt . . . that we shall triumph. Democracy will be stronger than the barbarity that has declared war on it . . . The battle will be long, difficult and trying.”

Foiled attack

Mr Hollande did not explain why it took police more than two hours to respond to repeated phone calls when the car was only a few hundred metres from Paris police headquarters.

The French president attacked Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen, the right-wing and far right-wing presidential candidates respectively. “We must not let ourselves be carried away, become irrational,” he said.  “Terrorists challenge us in two ways; not one: to defeat them, and to remain ourselves.”

Mr Sarkozy has accused Mr Hollande of bogging down in “legal quibbles” in the fight against terrorism.

“No, constitutional principles are not ‘legal quibbles,’” Mr Hollande said. “A legal quibble, the right to come and go? A legal quibble, freedom of expression? A legal quibble, freedom of faith? A legal quibble, the presumption of innocence, which is so convenient when one is pleading one’s own case?”

On Monday, the Paris prosecutor recommended that Mr Sarkozy be sent to trial for illegal campaign financing.

Mr Hollande went through a long list of extreme measures suggested by right-wing politicians, including the internment of suspected Islamists in camps, without trial. Such measures would renounce principles “without in any way ensuring the protection of the French,” he said.

Election one-upmanship

But, Mr Hollande warned, “Until next May, I’m the only one annointed by universal suffrage.”

In another well-received barb, Mr Hollande mocked the City of London for “thinking it can remain the financial centre of Europe while the UK is preparing its exit from the EU . . . Well no.  Europe is not a financial centre. We’re together in a space of shared values and principles.”

Mr Hollande said two questions are posed regarding France’s Muslim minority: “Can Islam adapt to laïcité [state-enforced secularism] as Catholicism, Protestantism and Judaism have?” and “Is the Republic ready to welcome in its midst a religion whose magnitude it did not forsee?” when the 1905 law on separation of Church and State was passed.

The French president responded “yes” to both questions, and warned that he would give fundamentalists “no pretext to take offence at stigmatisation of Muslims.”

By “stigmatisation,” Mr Hollande meant Mr Sarkozy’s demand for a law against the burkini, as well as bans on headscarfs in universities, government offices and businesses.

‘State of exception’

He denounced Mr Sarkozy’s demand for “circumstantial legislation,” when he lost four months last winter attempting to pass a law revoking the citizenship of convicted terrorists.

Although Mr Hollande has said repeatedly that he will not declare his candidacy until December, the conclusion of his speech clearly implied he will seek re-election. 

Alluding to “the battle of a lifetime,” he said the time is coming when the French will have to decide. In coming months and years, he promised, “I will not allow France to be damaged, diminished, its liberties questioned, its rule of law contested . . . We are France. Democracy is our weapon.”