French political parties endorse unity and put the national interest first – for now

Hollande appeals for national unity and so far the political truce has held

French president François Hollande appealed for national unity in the wake of Wednesday's attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, and so far the political truce has held.

In a pattern reminiscent of the fallout from the series of attacks on soldiers and a synagogue in Toulouse in 2012, politicians across the spectrum have largely refrained from seeking to take political advantage of the atrocity. “Our best weapon is unity, the unity of all our citizens in the face of this ordeal,” Hollande said in a televised address to the nation.

On Thursday, he received Nicolas Sarkozy at the Élysée Palace, the latter in his capacity as recently installed head of the UMP party. It was the first time Sarkozy had returned to the Élysée since Hollande denied him a second term more than two years ago. Further such meetings are planned with other leaders on the left and right.

“We could certainly work to improve security and not in the spirit of confrontation between opposition and majority, left and right, but for shared concern of protecting the French,” Sarkozy said after shaking Hollande’s hands on the steps of the Élysée. He said that if the president made proposals for stronger measures against terrorism, “if it’s in the spirit of unity and with the aim of strengthening the efficiency of our security forces, we will participate”.


Political leaders are keen not to misread the national mood, but few expect the truce to last. Already, there are signs that it may be under strain.

While Hollande and Sarkozy tried to downplay any religious dimension to the attack in the immediate aftermath, framing it as an assault on France's republican values, the leader of the National Front, Marine Le Pen, was quick to blame Islamist radicals. She has called for a referendum on bringing back the death penalty in France.

Le Pen said "Islamic fundamentalism" had declared war on France and that demanded strong, effective action. While she was careful to draw a distinction between Muslim citizens who share French values and "those who kill in the name of Islam", her father, National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen, and party deputy Florian Philippot were less cautious. "Anyone who says Islamist radicalism has nothing to do with immigration is living on another planet," Philippot said in a radio interview.

All of this comes at a sensitive time. A book by journalist Eric Zemmour entitled Le suicide français, arguing that mass Muslim immigration is contributing to the destruction of French secular values, was the bestselling essay of 2014.

The publishing event of the new year is a novel by Michel Houellebecq that imagines a Muslim president winning power in 2022, enforcing religious schooling and polygamy in France and banning women from working.

Moreover, a long-running discussion about the possible return of radicalised French Muslims, a topic that arose after the Toulouse killings, has intensified with the rise of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

In the midst of his attempt at a political comeback, Sarkozy too has recently returned to immigration, one of the themes of his presidency, by calling for much tighter European border controls to curb illegal migration.

Silent rally

A test of the current pause in hostilities will come this weekend, when political leaders are to attend a “silent rally” in Paris.

Most party leaders have agreed to attend, but uncertainty surrounds the possible attendance of Le Pen.

Julien Dray, a prominent socialist, tweeted yesterday that the National Front had "no place" in a republican march. Prime minister Manuel Valls said there could be "no exclusion from national unity" but added that unity must be built around certain values "that are profoundly republican – tolerance, a refusal to associate [Islam with extremism]."

Le Pen has said she hasn't yet been invited and told journalists she hoped the government would have the wisdom to invite "the representatives of a party that polled 25 per cent of the vote in the last election", referring to last year's vote for the European Parliament. If the front was "excluded", she said, it would mark "the end of national unity".

According to Jérôme Sainte-Marie of pollster CSA, inviting the National Front to Sunday’s march would mark “an important change in French political life”.

“Acceptance of the FN in the republican fold is at stake,” he told the AFP news agency.

“If they are integrated at this highly emotional time for our nation, by what right can they be rejected again?”