France on the Brink

France on the Brink

François Hollande has failed to provide voters with a credible alternative on issues of national security—a failure which has splintered the left and created a dangerous opening for the far-right.

In responding to attacks on France, François Hollande has failed to provide voters with a credible alternative to the right (Matthieu Riegler / Wikimedia Commons)

In the week before Bastille Day, it seemed as if French political life was finally getting back to normal after the horrific terrorist attacks of 2015. The media was abuzz with a classic silly season mini-scandal: the news that the largely bald president, François Hollande, had been keeping a hairdresser on retainer to the tune of over $10,000 per month. The revelation did nothing to improve Hollande’s historically low approval ratings, or to mute talk of a serious challenge to him from within his Socialist Party in the 2017 presidential election. Hollande himself announced that the state of emergency imposed after the 2015 attacks would now be lifted.

Then thirty-one-year-old Mohamed Bouhlel drove a rented truck through the happy crowds who had just watched the Bastille Day fireworks on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, killing eighty-four people, including ten children and adolescents.

Now the sense of crisis that followed the 2015 attacks is back, along with mounting anger and despair. This time, there has been no repetition of the massive display of national solidarity and resolve that followed the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket in January 2015, when millions of people took to the streets around the country under the banner “Je Suis Charlie.” After Nice, frightened and exhausted citizens have largely stayed home, while a wave of recrimination has already started to build in what the French call the “political class. Former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, the likely candidate of Les Républicains, the largest right-wing party, criticized Hollande’s administration for not introducing sufficient security measures. Christian Estrosi, a former right-wing mayor of Nice, charged thatwe have forgotten that France was in a state of war… and so there was Nice. As for Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, she insisted that “the war against the scourge of Islamic fundamentalism has not yet begun; it is urgent to declare it.” Le Pen was already likely to gain one of the two spots in the second round of presidential voting next year. Now, it looks possible that she might win.

Is there anything that the governing Socialists, and the French left more generally, can do to prevent an electoral wipe-out in 2017 and even a victory for the National Front? At the moment, things do not look good. On Friday, Hollande’s Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, stated that “we are in a new age, and France is going to have to live with terrorism . . . and show a collective sangfroid.” It was a painfully sober and realistic message, but putting it out so soon after the attack, at a moment when the country was still reeling in shock and grief, showed remarkable tone-deafness. People who are terrified to go out in public with their children do not want to hear that there is little to do but live with the threat. They want to be protected and will turn to politicians who offer them that reassurance.

The left’s dilemma stems partly from failures of leadership. Hollande has had, to be frank, a disastrous term in office. Elected in 2012 on the promise that he would govern as a “normal president,” replacing the hyperactive and ineffective Nicolas Sarkozy, he began his presidency with high levels of support that he almost immediately squandered. The revelation of an affair with a well-known actress might not have hurt him (this is France, after all), but the fact he had snuck off to see her at night on the back of a scooter made him look ridiculous. In addition, the French economy remained depressingly weak throughout most of his term, and his government has implemented little legislation of note. An early attempt to introduce a top tax bracket of 75 percent for the super-rich was quickly abandoned. This year, a law that loosened the labor code to give employers more flexibility in hiring and firing provoked large-scale protests and paralyzing transport strikes.

In most respects, Hollande has been a Socialist in name only. Just six months into his administration, in late 2012, he embraced supply-oriented policies, in partnership with big business, in a move that political scientists called a “rupture” in the history of the French left. And it soon became clear that he had no real vision of an alternate path. This was not even Tony Blair’s “New Labour.” Hollande, a long-term party operative who had risen largely thanks to his skill in what expert France-watcher Arthur Goldhammer calls “papering over deep cleavages and formulating a bland consensus,” in fact had few real goals beyond staying in power. His most remarkable achievement has been to attain levels of unpopularity previously thought impossible. In June, one poll put his support at just 11 percent. How can such a damaged figure rally the country behind him and stave off the challenge from Le Pen?

The situation is all the more depressing because, ideologically, the French left can call on resources not possessed by its counterparts in many other countries in providing voters with a credible alternative to the right on issues of national security. Throughout modern history, French patriotism has belonged to the left at least as much as to the right. During the French Revolution, armies pledged (at least in theory) to the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity held back the forces of conservative monarchies promising to restore the ancien régime. During the First World War, leaders of the Republic like Georges Clemenceau drew on this tradition very effectively. In the Second World War, while the traditional right largely went over to the collaborationist Vichy Regime of Marshal Philippe Pétain, the Resistance tilted strongly to the left.

President Hollande and Prime Minister Valls have tried to draw on this tradition themselves. After the attacks of January 2015, they immediately proclaimed “we are at war” and have continued to use the phrase ever since. After the November 2015 attacks, Hollande encouraged ordinary citizens to fly the flag outside their homes—a practice much less common in France than the United States. His speeches have incessantly invoked patriotism and the Republic.

The problem is that Hollande and Valls, like many others in France, have not managed to separate this militant patriotism from other, far more counter-productive elements of the French Republic’s ideological heritage. In these elements, national solidarity too easily becomes confused with national homogeneity, while citizens are called on to eschew any public affirmation of “particular” ethnic or spiritual allegiances.

These principles were first developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in struggles against Catholic reactionaries and to assimilate Jews; they are poorly adapted to the genuinely multi-cultural, post-imperial society that France has become. They have found expression in measures such as the law banning Muslim headscarves and other “ostentatious” signs of religious belief from public school classrooms. Many Muslims have taken these measures as clear signs that they are not welcome in the French Republic unless they surrender what they consider key parts of their identities. And since the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks, Hollande and Valls have doubled down on such measures, attempting to introduce new forms of patriotic republican content into school curricula and pushing for a constitutional amendment that would strip dual nationals convicted of terrorism of their French citizenship even if they were born in France (the effort ultimately failed in the French Senate).

Not only have such measures further alienated many French Muslims; they have (further) splintered the French left itself. Fewer than 60 percent of Socialist deputies to the National Assembly voted for the nationality amendment, and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira resigned over the issue. The Green Party (“Europe Écologie Les Verts”) and the Left Front of firebrand Jean-Luc Mélenchon both opposed the amendment as well, but neither have the strength to offer convincing alternatives to the Socialists on security issues. The Greens have themselves been divided over how far to support Hollande’s security measures, with one Green senator charging that “the Socialists love war.” Mélenchon has little credibility on the issue, having suggested that France leave the job of fighting ISIS to the Russians. Both of these groups, incidentally, will boycott the “primary of the Left” to be held early next year and will run candidates against the primary winner in the first round of the presidential election, further hurting the chance for any candidate of the left to reach the run-off.

So where do things stand? In the short term, at least, there is no question that France is going to become more of a security state. It will become, at least in part, “hardened” along Israeli lines. There will be many more checkpoints, searches, and armed security personnel in public places, along with more intrusive police and intelligence work in communities thought to shelter radical Islamists. These measures will not stop all new attacks, but they will stop some, which means that real lives will be saved, and this is what matters to the French public at present, quite understandably.

The question is who will introduce and preside over the measures after 2017. Will it be a government headed by Marine Le Pen, all too eager to compromise civil liberties and discriminate against Muslims in the name of security? Will it be a more traditional kind of right-wing government, perhaps headed by former Prime Minister Juppé, which might introduce many of the same compromises with a few more fig leaves? Or will it be a government of the left, genuinely committed to preserving civil liberties and to the fair treatment of all French citizens, even while taking the necessary measures to save as many lives as possible from future Mohamed Bouhlels?

Alas, there is absolutely no reason to think that François Hollande is the person to lead such a government, and he has little chance of being reelected. He may even lose the “primary of the left,” perhaps to his young, business-friendly Minister of the Economy Emmanuel Macron, a former banker, or perhaps to Macron’s predecessor, the grandstanding Arnaud Montebourg. Neither of these men has yet shown much sign that they will be able to govern in a more effective and inspiring manner than the current hapless incumbent. But, in any case, neither of them is much more likely than Hollande himself to make it to the second round, which, at this early point, seems most likely to feature Juppé against Marine Le Pen. This, too, is part of François Hollande’s baleful legacy.

David A. Bell, a regular contributor to Dissent, teaches French history at Princeton. His essay collection Shadows of Revolution: Reflections on France: Past and Present, was published this year by Oxford University Press.