From ‘Flanby’ to war chief: Hollande’s unexpected turn

Paris aftermath: French leader undergoes transformation few could have imagined

French President Francois Hollande: Was left clearly shaken by the attacks. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

French President Francois Hollande: Was left clearly shaken by the attacks. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

 

In the United States, the turning point that defined George W Bush’s presidency is captured in a single famous photograph. Taken on the morning of September 11th, 2001, it shows the then president, interrupted by an aide as he reads a story to children in a classroom in Florida, learning that a second aircraft has hit the World Trade Center in New York.

From that point on, the presidency of a man who had come to power repudiating foreign military entanglements and railing against the folly of nation- building would dramatically change course.

A similar photo circulated in France this week. Taken by press photographers at the Stade de France during the France v Germany match last Friday, it shows the face of President François Hollande as an adviser informs him that bombs have exploded outside the stadium and that multiple shootings have been reported in central Paris. Unlike in Bush’s case, the image of Hollande staring gravely into the distance does not so much mark a point of rupture as underline how much has already changed.

In his three years in office, Hollande has undergone a transformation that few, perhaps himself least of all, could have imagined when he replaced Nicolas Sarkozy in the Élysée Palace. The jovial, conflict-averse wonk with an inability to say no, once known to his own party colleagues as “Flanby” – a brand of soft-centred, wobbly pudding – has become a war president, praised for his resolve and sangfroid in the face of threats he has met head-on with military force.

Having declared a state of emergency in the wake of the attacks, Hollande’s government within days enacted the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in a generation, giving the police sweeping powers to search homes without warrants and place anyone suspected of posing a threat to national security under house arrest.

Hollande was left clearly shaken by the attacks. “The faces of the dead, of the injured, of their families, haunt my mind. This memory feeds my unwavering resolution and yours too,” he told members of parliament.

Firm response

La Marseillaise

All French presidencies are defined by world events. For Valéry Giscard-d’Estaing it was the oil crises of the 1970s, for François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac the first and second wars in Iraq, and for Sarkozy the global economic crisis. “François Hollande’s rendezvous with history is called Islamic State,” says the political commentator Alain Duhamel.

The shift was evident even before the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, however. In Mali in January 2013, when Islamist fighters based in the northern desert began a southward advance towards Bamako, the capital, Hollande sent in a large French military force on a risky mission to stop the jihadists.

In his recent book, The President’s Wars, the Le Monde journalist David Revault d’Allonnes identifies that as the moment Hollande’s “surprising metamorphosis” could be seen. He pressed for a strong EU line on Ukraine and cancelled the sale of two warships to Russia.

On Syria, he was the first world leader to join the US-led coalition in its air campaign against Isis and he has taken a harder line than Washington against President Bashar al-Assad.

Quite early in the presidency a paradox took hold: while Hollande seemed indecisive and hesitant and home, and saw his approval ratings plummet as a result, he projected strength and single-mindedness abroad. He is hardly the first French president to distract himself from domestic troubles by immersing himself in world affairs, but Hollande’s shift has been particularly striking.

Economic platform

Foreign policy scarcely figured in the 2012 campaign. This week, as he announced plans to recruit 5,000 new police officers within two years and reverse plans to cut military spending, Hollande admitted that France would not meet its EU budget targets as a result.

The abandonment of a plank of his domestic policy was barely commented on in France this week.

Whether Hollande’s initial response to the attacks will be effective is up for debate. Bombing targets in the Isis-held city of Raqqa last week was primarily a symbolic show of strength; nobody believes air strikes alone will defeat the jihadists. Some are convinced they are counterproductive.

Similarly, the French president’s plan to change the constitution so as to allow the authorities to revoke citizenship from dual nationals who are convicted of terrorism offences is primarily a political gesture of dubious value in the fight against extremism.

The most effective work will be done behind the scenes, where the intelligence services must address the lapses that allowed known radicals to enter France undetected and carry out multiple atrocities in the capital.

Domestic reaction

In a radio interview on Wednesday, justice minister Christiane Taubira conspicuously refused to say whether she agreed with Hollande’s plan to change the constitution to allow the state to revoke people’s citizenship.

For their part, Sarkozy and far-right leader Marine Le Pen have been relatively tame in their criticism. That’s partly because they want to show unity in the face of a common enemy, but also because, on defence and security, Hollande has effected a policy swing that leaves fairly little room between their positions and his.

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