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Terror in Europe

Can Charlie Hebdo Save Francois Hollande's Presidency?

Francois Hollande during a Jan. 13 ceremony paying tribute to victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
Francois Hollande during a Jan. 13 ceremony paying tribute to victims of the Charlie Hebdo attack.
David Revault d'Allonnes

PARIS — What just happened? This question, which is still on everybody’s lips after Sunday’s historic rallies, goes beyond the three days of massacres that have shaken France, and also applies to its president. François Hollande has indeed seen an astounding reversal of fortunes. His popularity was stuck at its lowest levels just a week ago, but after these events, the Socialist Party president, though not redeemed yet, has been propelled to the front of an unprecedented political movement he couldn’t have dreamed of. As someone close to him even admitted, “these are terrible events, but for him it’s not so bad.”

The political analysis is clear: It's been top marks on all fronts. Denounced for his lack of authority and his inaptitude to make clear decisions, he has led the police operations with “composure and determination,” according to an insider. Often criticized for his failure to embody the presidential function, he looked like he belonged at the center of Sunday's march with the other world leaders.

Contested even inside his own center-left majority, he placed himself at the fulcrum of an almost perfect consensus, embracing the entire political spectrum — even his fiercest opponent, Nicolas Sarkozy, was for a time relegated to the background of the photo. Only Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front party, tried to play her card but was unsuccessful.

The most unpopular president in the history of the Fifth Republic, François Hollande was leading the biggest march since the liberation of the country in 1944. The president's natural taste for consensus, which until last week was high on the list of criticisms against him, is exactly what is now earning him praise. The paradox is striking.

Of course, popular marches and the national catharsis are also misleading, as they mask the aggregation of different categories of the population and the absence of some that don’t feel affected. But Hollande, who’s well-versed in the much-criticized method of bringing people together on the least common denominator, has managed to smoothly accompany the popular reaction. It’s as if, in order to finally work, the president’s way needed a large-scale national traumatic event.

“He is perfect for this,” observes one of his closest friends. And indeed, over the past week, Hollande has very much been the man for the job.

What the people want

The man who had in his 2012 campaign presented himself as the candidate to “cool things down” had until now failed to keep his promise. He underestimated the divisions that the law on gay marriage would create and proved powerless in preventing the escalation of sectarian tensions and the rise of ideological posturing.

But his diagnosis was perfectly lucid. Hollande regularly insists on the need for the population to “come together,” to “unite,” praising a return to national pride in the face of a form of French despair.

Often as correct as they are impossible to pursue, these assessments have this time around proved adapted to the situation. Could the president, by combining power and proximity, decision and compassion, all under a perfectly managed PR strategy, finally have found the appropriate alchemy his team has been seeking for months?

Still, the benefits in the middle-term seem highly perishable. Nobody would yet go as far as gambling on the lasting political effects of the terrorist attacks and of the rallies that followed. Nor on their result on the public opinion. The executive is also pondering what the ideal dosage of politics will be as day-to-day business resumes with the debate on a crucial economy bill.

The president’s office however stresses that Hollande is “still very attentive. The security alert is still on the highest level, that’s what he keeps his focus on.” And as new legislation is expected after the attacks, notably a new bill on intelligence agencies planned for this year, a close advisor explains that “the population won’t understand inaction, just as it won’t accept hastiness and disproportionate action.”

Already, François Hollande intends to turn the reaction of the last few days into a political reference for his government. “The Jan. 11 marches will remain an important event in our history,” one of his top aides explained. “This sense of unity, of bringing people together must continue to inspire us for all our battles in the future.”

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