The terror attacks on Friday have given President François Hollande an opportunity to be statesmanlike, and he has tried his best. He quickly declared a state of emergency and summoned a special congress of the Senate and the National Assembly so that he could deliver a powerful address. ‘Terrorism will not destroy France, because France will destroy it,’ he said.
Unfortunately, like most things the president does, the speech fell flat. Pictured on the front page of Monday’s Le Figaro, France’s conservative daily (as well as inside the left-leaning Le Monde), he looked a small man, flanked by his security guards. The camera can be cruel — as can photo selection — but it can also encapsulate the general sentiment as to his leadership.
Unless he can achieve a fast and meaningful victory over Isis, it seems unlikely that Hollande can capitalise on the sense of solidarity felt throughout France. The French have escalated the bombing of Isis targets in Raqqa this week — but few believe that will save Hollande’s presidency. He has always been quick to intervene militarily in the Middle East and North Africa, but it has not made him any more popular.
The French are more enthusiastic about Hollande’s prime minister, Manuel Valls, who has sounded and looked tougher than his boss in recent days. The only hope the socialists have, according to some analysts, is if Hollande makes way for Valls to run as the left’s presidential candidate in 2017.
Unlike Hollande, Marine Le Pen looks well placed to exploit this tragedy. Unless she says something stupid — and her record suggests she won’t — the Front National leader’s no-nonsense rhetoric about combating the Islamist threat is likely to go down well with an angry French public. She has demanded an immediate halt to the intake of immigrants from Syria, and says that the Schengen agreement, which allows free passage across European borders, is ‘madness’. She was already expected to do well in the regional elections at the beginning of December. Now she is expected to do even better.
Right-thinking Parisians are appalled at the thought of Le Pen’s ascension. One woman I spoke to warned about the dangers of a conservative Catholic revival in response to the terror attacks, led by the Front National. But the party is not Catholic. It is more socially liberal in its outlook — many gay men and women support the party, for instance, in part because they think it is their best protection against Islamists who despise their way of life. Its real base is made up of disgruntled former Socialist and Communist party supporters. A 2013 poll indicated that half of the FN vote was from the working class who felt abandoned by the political left.
Nicolas Sarkozy, president of his new Les Republicains party, has been trying to combat the Front National challenge by outflanking Le Pen on the right. He has campaigned against halal meat and now talks about tougher policing in les banlieues. But Sarkozy is not well loved, to put it mildly, and he faces an internal threat from Alain Juppé, a more traditionally bourgeois and centrist Gaulliste figure. Moreover, for all his anti-Islamism, Sarkozy is tied to the European project, so cannot attack EU immigration laws in the way Le Pen can.
Whoever ends up leading the centre-right will struggle to deal with the fact that Le Pen has detoxified the Front National brand in recent years. She expelled her extremist father, Jean-Marie, because he was an embarrassment. No longer seen as a ragtag army of holocaust deniers, the FN is now changing the political landscape. A Marine Le Pen presidency might remain unthinkable for most French citizens, but there is no question that the bloodshed in Paris plays into her hands.
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