French Voters’ Fear of Terror Puts Hollande in a Political Bind

The Challenges Facing Hollande in Terror-Bound France
  • Sarkozy, Le Pen seek jail, deportation of possible terrorists
  • Socialist leadership haunted by 2002 defeat on security

As the terrorist threat moves to center stage in France’s presidential election campaign, Francois Hollande finds himself paralyzed.

He’s stuck between an opposition-stoked desire for tougher, even authoritarian, measures to provide security, and a historic reluctance by his own Socialist Party to impinge on basic democratic freedoms in the name of law and order. It’s a dilemma that’s already contributed to one major election defeat for the Socialists.

A shift in the security-versus freedom debate has become palpable since July, when two very different attacks brought the civilian death toll from terrorism on Hollande’s watch to 236. Suddenly polls show security, not jobs, as the main preoccupation of voters, and the president himself acknowledges this is tricky political terrain for a Socialist candidate just eight months from the next election.

“How far are we willing to go? What are our principles? There is one limit, a limit we should all share: the preamble of the Constitution,” Hollande told the presidential press corps this month, referring to a clause that states the nation is founded on human rights principles that trace their roots to the French revolution of 1789. “A Socialist candidate stands no chance in an escalation on this front because others will always go further.”

For a QuickTake Q&A on the latest terror attacks on France, click here

Deja Vu

Perceptions of weakness on security is a political problem with which Hollande is all too familiar. As secretary general of the Socialist Party in 2002, Hollande saw then-presidential candidate Lionel Jospin’s poll lead evaporate after conceding that as prime minister he had been “naive” on security. Two months later, in April that year, Jospin was ejected from the presidential race in the first round, allowing Jacques Chirac to romp to victory with 80 percent of the vote in the run-off against the National Front’s Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Fourteen years on, the security threat is of a different order, the national mood more unpredictable and the National Front now under the leadership of Marine Le Pen stronger than ever. Le Pen has worked to broaden the party’s appeal beyond the far-right fringes, and is probably a shoo-in to reach the second round of the 2017 election as she calls for the deportation of any foreigner with suspected links to terrorists.

Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, plotting a comeback for the Republicans, says that France needs to be “pitiless” with terrorists and adopt wartime tactics to protect the population. Government objections to doing away with the presumption of innocence and jailing anyone who might be a potential threat amounts to legal “nit-picking,” he says. Across the Atlantic, Donald Trump’s campaign for president has been indelibly marked by his call to prevent Muslims from entering the U.S.

In such a febrile atmosphere, Hollande, who believes another attack is unavoidable, sees little chance of the issue going away and every likelihood that it become more intense.

Visibly Shaken

When he received the call in his office on July 26 informing him that a Catholic priest had been murdered during mass in rural Normandy, Hollande was taken aback by the symbolism of the attack and the relentless repetition of killings. He remained visibly shaken hours after the incident, according to a person familiar with his movements.

For more on the reaction to the priest’s murder, click here

Fifty-eight percent of French people now see security and terrorism as their main concern, according to an Ifop poll taken July 27-29. In a country where joblessness is near a record high, only 17 percent still name unemployment as their top issue. The poll also showed that nearly three-quarters of voters want potential terrorists to be arrested on the grounds that in the current context the state must “take no risks.”

“Hollande is at crossroads: Either he decides now to be a commander-in-chief ready to take on very tough measures to fight jihadists in France, or he sticks to measures he has already taken and fight with his line that ‘democracy is our shield,”’ Jerome Fourquet, chief pollster at Ifop, said in an interview. With the French public demanding exceptional measures, Hollande’s dilemma is that the Socialists have a history that shows “they just can’t pass the full-security threshold.”

Hollande and his prime minister, Manuel Valls, insist they haven’t been shy in their counter-terrorism effort: military spending is up, France has undertaken three foreign operations against Islamic extremists, while their government has passed three consecutive laws to tighten surveillance, expand emergency powers and facilitate arrests.

Security Reboot

Socialists see themselves as having undergone an reboot on security issues, one of Hollande’s top advisers said.

Yet Hollande has already has paid a political price for going too far in the eyes of his own party. After 130 were killed by terrorists in around Paris last November, Hollande sought a constitutional change that would allow the government to strip convicted terrorists of their French nationality. Opposition from his own lawmakers forced him to eventually back down and the internal party struggle coincided with a steep slide in the polls.

This time, the president is taking a different tack, saying he won’t consider setting up a Guantanamo-style prison for terrorists and indicating he is worried about his potential campaign rivals’ authoritarian drift. 

Yet winning voters over with a principled stance may prove to be an uphill battle. Hovering near record low approval ratings for any French president, Hollande is already struggling to explain why he hasn’t managed to revive growth and cut unemployment.

The remaining months of his mandate may now be spent grappling with a world in which he believes the worst can happen: more terror attacks, a European Union breakup, and possibly even the election of Donald Trump -- all potential fodder for authoritarian sentiment within the French electorate. Speaking to journalists on the eve of his summer vacation, Hollande was candid about the future: “The unpredictable is now the foreseeable.”

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