As a longtime writer on French politics who was critical of François Hollande’s performance since the feckless early days of his presidency, it’s gratifying to report that Hollande is finally taking the measure of his job and the responsibility it carries. Re-forged in the crucible of terrorist attacks in Paris last Friday, November 13, Hollande is showing unexpected talent for statesmanship. His boldness is legitimized by circumstances, the fact that ISIS chose France and not some other country to stage the most complex, damaging assault in its explosion into globalized terrorism. Hollande has new stature among American, Russian and Muslim national leaders who had dismissed his importance. Maybe deep down he intuited that he had nothing to lose and everything to gain from audacity. As a consequence, Hollande might just be the moving force to create an improvised coalition of outside powers against Islamic State.
Hollande’s September 16 speech to a joint session of Parliament convened at the Versailles Palace crystallized the transformation. Versailles was Hollande’s finest moment. His speech was dignified, measured, solemn, determined, epigrammatic, morally uncompromising, the oration of a statesman. An enemy was specified without ambiguity. “France is at war,” he said, and the adversary is more than just another international terrorist network.” Daech (ISIS) is “a jihadist army” that “has a territorial base, financial resources and military capacity.” Clarifying the Obama administration’s weak formula that the goal is “to degrade and ultimately to destroy” ISIS, Hollande said directly that the point is “not to contain but to destroy this organization.” Putting to rest a long controversy among Western intellectuals over whether Islam and democracy are compatible, Hollande said that the war against ISIS is not a war against Muslims, “not a matter of some kind of war of civilizations, because these assassins don’t represent any kind of civilization.”
France’s opposition politicians applauded but asked, plausibly, why it had taken the Socialist leader so long to endorse stronger counter-terrorism laws. Underneath was the accusation that the Left’s emphasis on civil liberties and its wish not to stigmatize France’s Muslim population is partly to blame for the failure to prevent ISIS from carrying out this and other recent attacks. However valid this point may be, and it’s always a question, as in the U.S., of striking a necessary balance between security and civil liberties, Hollande took the extraordinary step — extraordinary for any stable democracy let alone France — of declaring a state of national emergency, a move which might be seen as a humiliating failure. Police and counter-terrorism investigations are now legally more intrusive, including house searches without warrants, taking family members in for questioning, house arrest, more aggressive rules on deportation, and stripping bi-national suspected terrorists or conspirators of French nationality. Hollande is proposing to revise the Constitution, including Article 16, a long controversial de Gaulle-era measure from the time of the Algerian War that gives the president personal authority to declare a state of emergency. Hollande added that this increased anti-terrorist regimen was a matter of national interest, not collective punishment of some particular group: “France without distinctions based on race, national origin, personal history or religion.” We’ll see.
Hollande, who will meet Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin separately this week, is calling for “a single, broad and unified coalition,” to link the U.S., Russia, and various Muslim countries in a formalized joint operation to destroy ISIS. President Charles de Gaulle’s hope during the cold war was to act as a diplomatic link between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. France would lead the world to Soviet-American detente. Despite de Gaulle’s immense prestige It didn’t work then but conditions have changed. The Soviet Union is gone and Putin, despite his aggression in Ukraine and his support of Bashar Assad, has reasons to join up.
François Hollande is rising to the occasion. In French existentialist vocabulary, ‘il devient lui-même,” which means creating himself, becoming what he might have been, reaching his potential, hidden as it was. There certainly was artifice and theatrics when at the conclusion of his Versailles speech the parliamentarians gave him a standing ovation and broke into the Marseillaise. But even a skeptical eye saw some genuine patriotism rather than the usual hypocrisy. The French parliament with the president standing at the rostrum at that moment visually and truly represented the French as a people and a nation.