François Hollande: the John Wayne of the Champs Élysées
If the suicide bombers who attacked the Stade de France on Friday 13 November had succeeded in entering the stadium, as appears to have been their intention, France might now be facing an additional crisis of political, constitutional and existential significance: namely, the assassination of the president of the republic.
It was no secret that , the Socialist leader who was elected to the Élysées in 2012, was attending that evening’s football match against Germany. It may reasonably be assumed he was the terrorists’ prime target. Pictures of Hollande’s ashen-faced security detail as they hurried him away to safety indicate how close a shave this was.
Hollande’s survival has been more than merely physical. In the torrid days following the attacks, this unprepossessing politician, who styled himself “Monsieur Normal” as he fought to unseat Nicolas Sarkozy, has morphed into an extraordinary figure – a gritty leader, popular commander and “chef de guerre” – who appears, for now, almost larger than life.
In a whirlwind of activity that included an historic address to parliament in Versailles, Hollande declared France to be at war with Islamist jihadism, called for a global military coalition with at its helm, demanded EU-wide support, imposed a national state of emergency and border checks, put troops on the streets, and vowed to vastly extend invasive state security powers.
For a man once widely dismissed as a loser and a lightweight, it was a veritable transformation. Abroad, he had perhaps been best known for his furtive motorcycle tryst with his actor lover, Julie Gayet, and his messy, public breakup with his First Lady, Valérie Trierweiler. At home, he had endured the further .
Coming from a lifelong Socialist, Hollande’s dramatic talk of unbridled war, his embrace of a highly conservative security agenda, and his stated determination to mercilessly crush France’s foes seemed incongruous, to say the least. A man of notoriously diminutive stature, Hollande was suddenly walking tall, the John Wayne of the Champs Élysées. After January’s Charlie Hebdo shootings, Hollande went looking for causes – social exclusion, economic deprivation, alienation of young Muslims. Last week, he went looking for culprits.
The key to understanding this apparent paradox may lie in the nature of modern political leadership in times of crisis, for Hollande’s journey, as a man and statesman, is by no means unique.
Modern leaders have available a number of familiar crisis-management tools, as well as some new ones. They range from patriotic rhetoric, appeals to national sentiment and identity, claims of moral superiority, fear of the other, and the delegitimisation and dehumanisation of the “enemy” to real-time, mass-media communications, mass surveillance, and the overweening power, reach and legal force of a modern-day government.
Unhesitating, Hollande reached for them all. Faced with a fundamental and outrageous challenge to the established state, the president, as the embodiment, symbol and premier office holder of that same state, shifted instantaneously to what might be termed crisis default position one: that is to say, he stood up, took a stand, banished all sense of doubt and self-blame, and boldly rallied the nation in defence of the republic.
As events in other countries have shown, at such moments of extreme national stress, differences in political ideology and policy become effectively moot, at least for a while. Political point-scoring, for example, over glaring contradictions between the state’s latest, necessary actions and traditional concerns about individual freedom, privacy and civil liberties is temporarily set aside.
Ordinary citizens, for the most part willingly, become party to this understanding. It is as though they are saying, albeit without actually being asked, that dissent is unwelcome and only serves to give comfort to the “enemy”. Those who disagree, as about shoot-to-kill policy, are booed down. The unspoken, over-riding priority is for national unity, above all else, in the face of a common threat – and this fundamental idea, at such times, is fiercely held and almost tribal in origin.
This phenomenon is by no means confined to France, nor is it particularly new. This collective circling of wagons at moments of peril is at least as old as the post-Enlightenment modern nation state. In terms of political rhetoric and strongman leadership, the ancient Greeks would have no trouble recognising recent behaviour.
A similar, unscripted exercise in voluntary, collective obeisance, or self-censorship, was evident in the US after 9/11, when overt opposition and media criticism of White House counter-terrorism policies was seen as almost treasonable for a time. It was a development that thwarted accountability, discouraged transparency, and was ultimately deeply injurious to American democracy and the peoples of the Middle East.
So Hollande, so far, has survived. He has ridden the tiger with aplomb. But there is a weighty down side to such “take no prisoners” crisis management, as other leaders have found. Hollande may yet come to rue some or much of what he has lately set in train as normality returns; the price of such from-the-gut leadership can be high.
The choices a leader makes between a principled and populist path, between inspirational, emotional reactivity and careful, thought-through policy adjustment become clearer as the dust settles. And the consequences, as always, are unpredictable and often unwelcome. As objective political evaluations and daily judgments resume, so too does a more rigorous, less credulous, less trustful scrutiny, replacing mindless grief, anger and fear. This process is already gathering force in .
Previous experience should tell Hollande what to expect. Praised for his statesmanlike reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the so-called “Charlie effect” on his poll ratings quickly dissipated. Two months later, by the Sarkozy-led, centre-right opposition and by the Front National (FN) of Marine Le Pen.
History may soon repeat itself, as the FN gears up for big advances in next month’s nationwide municipal polls. Le Pen has been careful with what she has said, tacitly acknowledging the immediate national urge to rally round the flag and the president. She is evidently anxious about being accused of exploiting the situation for political gain. But both she and Sarkozy are merely biding their time.
When the dust has settled, Hollande will likely face redoubled efforts, all the more furious for having been delayed, to blame him and his administration for fatal intelligence lapses and immigration policy failures, for a misguided, Mitterrand-style tolerance for “la difference” in French society, especially where Muslims are concerned, and for an interventionist foreign policy, in the Middle East and Francophone Africa, that has made France both the target and the victim of its enemies.
Comparisons can be instructive, though they are not encouraging. The Syrian civil war and the parallel rise of international jihadi terrorism have presented other national leaders with dilemmas and pitfalls akin to those faced by Hollande.
In Turkey earlier this month, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Justice and Development party (AKP) scored a famous general election victory. But Erdoğan’s campaign was based on fear: of physical and economic insecurity, of the Kurdish minority, of Isis and other extremists, of Syrian refugees and European governments bent on exploiting Turkey for their own ends.
But his politics of instinct may yet prove disastrously contrary to his country’s long-term interest.
The election has left Turkey utterly divided, with 49% backing Erdoğan’s way of doing things and 49% against, according to a Pew survey. Turkey is half in and half out of the battle to replace Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, half in and half out of a resumed war with Kurdish separatists, half in and half out of and of an agreement to help stem the flow of refugees. If matters deteriorate, Erdoğan will be blamed.
, Germany’s long-serving and apparently unassailable chancellor, was hailed almost as a modern-day Mother Teresa when she opened her borders in the summer to thousands of migrants advancing on Germany via Greece and the Balkans. It was a heartfelt gesture, no doubt, and one that was celebrated by many in Germany resentful of the country’s post-Greece image as Europe’s heartless, penny-pinching boss.
But winter is coming, in Berlin as elsewhere, and there have been a lot of second thoughts.
Merkel would say that she made a quick decision when nobody else in Europe would. She would say she acted from humanitarian motives, and that she acted for the best. But as Hollande may soon discover, decisions reached at the height of a crisis are no substitute for long-term policy making, however popular they appear at the time.
Many other senior politicians have faced similar moments of acute national emergency or crisis when the pressure for swift action, tough words and strong – or vainglorious – expressions of leadership is both irresistible and, eventually, calamitous. George W Bush fell prey to rash choices and careless rhetoric with his talk of a crusade against al-Qaida and his vow to hunt down Osama bin Laden “dead or alive”. He prematurely declared victory in a war that still had eight years to run. Tony Blair, too keen to do what he personally considered the right thing, so over-egged his Iraq invasion pudding that his reputation never recovered.
Margaret Thatcher greeted Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands with visceral, violent, patriotic defiance. But her subsequent, improvised actions, particularly the sinking of the Argentine cruiser Belgrano, remain deeply controversial – and the Falklands issue remains dangerously unresolved.
Political responses to extreme crisis need not always be disastrous. Mikhail Gorbachev, contemplating the imminent implosion of the Soviet Union, found himself trapped in an historical cul-de-sac. It could all have become very nasty as the nuclear-armed state fell apart. In the end, the last general-secretary of the USSR did as well as anybody might have expected. Yet he is still reviled on the Russian nationalist right as the man who lost the empire.
In 1989, Helmut Kohl, then chancellor of West Germany, was likewise unexpectedly confronted with the fall of the Berlin Wall and a growing imperative for German reunification. Like Hollande, he was, and perhaps deserved to be, a much underestimated man. But Kohl pulled off an amazing transformation, without bloodshed and without much fuss.
Like Hollande, these modern-day leaders all resorted amid crisis to the language, trappings and power of national will, unity, patriotism, determination, defiance and unswerving dedication to victory. All knew that, like him, their survival as leaders was on the line. And nearly all paid a high personal, political or historical price for the instinctive and often ill-thought-out manner in which they responded.
In the past week, Hollande has done the French proud. In the coming period, the French, committed by their president to an open-ended war in the Middle East, slowly absorbing the many negative, divisive longer-term consequences of his recent actions at home, and ultimately forgetful of last week’s magnificent sense of unity, will most likely do for Hollande.