Thursday, January 22, 2015

Some Post-Charlie Surprises

In the immediate aftermath of the terror attacks, the assumption was that the big winner would be Marine Le Pen. Few if any observers predicted that François Hollande would double his approval rating from 19 to 40%. Fewer still foresaw that 67% of those polled would say that Marine Le Pen had not "measured up" in her response to the attacks.

What is more, the ensuing weeks have revealed a deep split in the Front National. The head of the FN's EU delegation, Aymeric Chauprade, has been removed from his post for blurring the message that MLP wished to send to her countrymen. Chauprade announced that France "was at war with Muslims," that the Muslim minority constituted "a fifth column" inside France, and that Islam posed a "grave threat" to French values. This contradicted MLP's desire to soften her Islamophobic image by directing her fire against only those Muslims who opted for militant jihad. To complicate matters, her father, honorary president for life of the party, backed Chauprade (after adopting for himself the slogan "je suis Charlie Martel"), as did her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen, one of the party's two deputies. So, contrary to all expectation, the attacks have been devastating for the FN.

As for the UMP, Nicolas Sarkozy appeared yesterday on France 2, carrying on as if he had never left the presidency and abetted in his comeback by anchor David Pujadas, who allowed the former president to speak for minutes on end without interruption--minutes in which he indulged his penchant for rhetorical excess and muscular hyperbole: France was engaged, he said, in a "war" to defend "civilization." But Sarkozy erroneously portrayed his own record (claiming that he had not reduced the size of the police force during his presidency, even though Pujadas's own program had presented figures the night before showing that he had). He also called for reinstating police overtime, which doesn't need reinstatement because it already exists. Rather than looking presidential, he seemed confused and hapless, an appearance compounded by his uncharacteristically hesitant delivery.

Meanwhile, Manuel Valls made headlines by declaring that France suffered from being an "apartheid" society. The term was immediately challenged, not least by Sarkozy, who called it an error--which, in a literal sense, it was, since there is certainly no legal regime of segregation in France. But Valls chose the term deliberately to provoke, and his use of it got the attention he desired. It also gave him an opportunity to hit back at Sarkozy, which he did by playing the statesman card: in this time of national danger, leaders ("those who govern and those who governed yesterday," he said, leaving no doubt about whom he had in mind) must rise to the occasion and not descend to petty polemic, etc. etc. Insincere, perhaps, but effective. And the issue of the abandoned banlieues and their role in alienating a generation of Muslim youth is now squarely on the table.

Finally, François Hollande continues to live in a state of grace, as though his presidency had been reborn. He has been dignified, but, more importantly, he has not succumbed to the temptation an "all guns blazing, with us or against us" response. He has allowed his ministers to emphasize the need for a social as well as a security response to the crisis. In short, he has at last been able to appear presidential and has something to do other than seem inadequate in the face of economic crisis. I hesitate to use the phrase "divine surprise," knowing its history, but it seems remarkably apt.


bernard said...

Hollande has, for many years, made a career out of being underestimated. Ask Martine Aubry and a few others. This is yet another example: in a time of deep and immediate crisis, he turns out suddenly as a much better Head of State than the majority thought possible.

Obviously, I am not going to draw a parallel or make a comparison, but there is someone else who made such a career somewhat successfully I guess. His name was Helmut Kohl and I can still remember the Nord Friesen jokes I was hearing about him on German radio in the early eighties.

As for MLP and her father, they were always going to mess up this historical sequence. As I mentioned immediately after the terror attacks in a previous comment, everything always has to be about them, in their opinion, and this is quite sufficient as an explanation.

Sarkozy's difficulties are obvious. Here is a man who, by late December, could think that 2015 would be about his return to the forefront and, suddenly, through no special fault of his own, 2015 is about something else entirely. Tough. Anyone can easily understand that he would be facing a difficult adjustment gap, even I who can't stand the sight of him.

I for one certainly hope that these three trends will continue.

bert said...

If you find yourself in an executive role at the time of a terrorist outrage, and can avoid being implicated in any failure to prevent it, you can expect a boost in popularity. Ask George Bush and a few others. This boost may or may not translate into success at subsequent elections. Ask Rudy Giuliani and a few others.

When the time comes to look back at Hollande's career, my guess is that the standout divine surprise will still be the self-destruction of DSK.

James Conran said...

I think that Hollande deserves some credit for a certain cunning in his handling of the "republican march" (and here I would humbly depart from your own analysis at that time). My initial reaction to the news that Hollande had invited an array of "world leaders" to march hand in hand with him was that this was a clever way to get away with excluding the Front National from the invitees - originally it seemed the imagery of the march would be prominently marked by this exclusion, the assumption being that the leading line would consist of Hollande and Sarkozy and the various other French non-FN luminaries. The inclusion of the foreign leaders cleverly relegated not just the excluded FN but also Sarkozy (notwithstanding his failed attempts to elbow his way to the front, seemingly abandoning poor Carla Bruni in his wake).

James Conran said...

More generally, while there is plenty to regret and worry about in the reaction to these terrible evenements, it's true that there are also hopeful signs, notable the absence of any major (short-term) gains for the FN. One must hope that this will rehabilitate Hollande enough to give the left-candidate (Valls?) a chance of making the second round, but not so much that Hollande thinks HE should be that candidate (he should not), and also that it makes the UMP candidacy a less sure thing for Sarkozy.

bert said...

That's an interesting point James raises there. What end should plans for 2017 serve? François Hollande's career? PS party advantage? Or defeat of the FN?

I'd argue that the sooner the first option can be ruled out - on grounds of lack of contact with reality - the better the chances of securing the latter two outcomes. On this reading, readers dismayed by the state of the French right shouldn't welcome a boost in Hollande's ratings, since it delays a necessary reckoning.

Art, you've stayed loyal longer than many, but towards the end of last year even your patience was plainly exhausted, and I really don't think anything substantive has changed since then.

Anonymous said...

Bert, Rudy Giuliani is not a good example. He could not have run again for mayor because of term limits. He has not won nomination for any other office because he is an ass, and because he makes so much money as a 'consultant' he probably won't ever really try again.