Francois Hollande has spent most of his time as president of France mired in the depths of public opinion. Put precisely, he has been the most unpopular president in modern French history.
This will now change. Whatever the French people thought of their president before the attacks in Paris, in their immediate aftermath their opinion of him will go up. It’s a typical pattern, which in the US is called the “rally ‘round the flag effect.” The phrase refers to increased popular support for a president in a time of national crisis – especially war. By promptly declaring that “France is at war,” Hollande virtually assured that in the short term at least his level of support among the French would rise.
Who can say the right thing to do when terror strikes an iconic city – which happens also to be the capital of the country over which you preside? There is no handbook for such a circumstance, no handy-dandy leadership guide. Rather, as history attests, in such situations leaders fly by the seat of their pants. At least to an extent, they improvise.
This is not to say that someone in Hollande’s position – president of a country that recently suffered a serious terrorist attack (in January of this year, the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo) – would not have given serious thought to what to do if terror struck again. But it is to say that the specifics of such situations remain unknown – until they are known. And so while leaders obviously do prepare for terrorist attacks, how exactly to respond remains unclear until after at least the initial attack has passed. How could Hollande have prepared for this particular complication – Turkey shooting down a Russian warplane just as he undertakes his major diplomatic initiative?
In the wake of the most recent terror in Paris, Hollande went into overdrive. His rhetoric has been strong and unyielding. His domestic policy has been fierce and persuasive. (He sought and secured parliamentary approval for declaration of a three month state of emergency.*) And in foreign policy he has played his level best, while holding a hand that’s quite weak.
France is a country widely perceived in decline. In the last decade it was Germany that surged to the forefront of Europe, while France lagged. Hollande understood then that if he was to declare that France was at war, far smarter not to have France stand alone. So he has been making the rounds – trying his damnedest to forge an international coalition against ISIS. On Monday of this week he met with Britain’s David Cameron. On Tuesday he flew to the US to meet with Barack Obama. On Wednesday back to Paris to meet with Germany’s Angela Merkel and, later, with Italy’s Matteo Renzi. On Thursday he’s off to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin. And on the weekend he’ll conclude his diplomatic marathon by hosting a dinner in Paris for China’s Xi Jinping.
Impossible to know now whether this abundance of activity at home and abroad will pay off. But if it does not, it will not be because Francois Hollande had a dearth of determination or imagination – or, for that matter, stamina.
*Some have objected to this concentration of power in the hands of the French executive. But, then, during the American Civil War Abraham Lincoln suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus.