Hollande Defense of French Freedoms Meets Sarkozy Rage at Terror

  • Sarkozy urges government to disregard limits on its powers
  • Church attacker had been caught trying to join Islamic State

French President Francois Hollande’s calls for national unity and a defense of democratic freedoms is increasingly falling on deaf ears amid growing exasperation with his inability to protect the public from terrorists.

A hostage taking and murder in a church Tuesday was the second deadly episode involving Islamic extremists in less than two weeks and the latest in a string of attacks that have left more than 230 dead in France since the start of last year.

From former president Nicolas Sarkozy to National Front lawmaker Marion Marechal-Le Pen, opposition politicians have jumped on the latest assault to call into question the government’s commitment to a hard line against potential assailants. The reactions give voice to the public’s weariness with the persistent attacks, while pointing to a key division in the presidential election looming next year

“When these attacks started, you had countries rallying together and a sense of solidarity,” said Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group. Now people are “desensitized” and the issue has become “much more polarizing.”

Sarkozy, who is gearing up for a bid to reclaim the presidency, has offered the sharpest criticism. It’s not just that he’s saying France needs to be “pitiless” in fighting terrorists, he suggests the government should disregard legal checks on its power in the pursuit of potential attackers.

“Using legal nitpicking and caveats as a pretext for lack of action is unacceptable,” Sarkozy said. “I’m demanding that the government implement all the proposals we’ve been making for months without delay. We can’t waste time. It’s war, we have no choice.”

Public Concerns

The exchange of barbs underlines how the presidential campaign has already begun for Hollande and Sarkozy, with more than nine months still to go. The two 61 year-old lifetime politicians face very different challenges: Sarkozy is trying to secure his nomination in The Republican primaries late this year, while Hollande is trying to rebuild his popularity, which is hovering near record lows. Neither has officially declared their candidacy.

Terrorism and unemployment were each named by 91 percent of the French as issues that will affect their vote in next year’s election, according to a poll by Ifop for Politico.

While Ifop hadn’t asked the question in the same format in earlier polls, surveys by other companies have always shown jobs and the economy were more of a concern. The most recent poll was carried out after the killing of 84 people by a Tunisian immigrant in Nice, but before this week’s murder of a priest.

Previous terror attacks have brought Hollande a significant bounce in popularity as the nation rallied around its leader. After 17 people were killed in and around Paris in January 2015 and another 130 in November, Hollande’s approval rating jumped to 29 percent and 27 percent respectively, according to pollster Ifop.

That’s not happening this time. Following the attack in Nice on July 14, his rating only gained three points to 17 percent, according to an Ifop poll in the same series.

Heading for Syria

Sarkozy on Tuesday criticized Hollande for failing to lock up the 19-year-old involved in this week’s hostage taking in Normandy. The man’s movements had been limited by an electronic tag after he’d been placed under house arrest for having tried to join Islamic State in Syria.

Sarkozy’s remarks come a week after Laurent Wauquiez, a lawmaker in his Republican party, called on the government to change the law to make it easier to put potential attackers behind bars, accusing the government of defending “the personal freedom of terrorists.”

The anti-immigrant, anti-euro National Front party is also taking advantage of the issue. Marion Marechal-Le Pen, niece of leader Marine Le Pen, said the terrorist who perpetrated the attack on Nice should have been deported after his first criminal conviction.

Hollande hit back in a televised statement late Tuesday, suggesting Sarkozy and his allies are playing into the hands of extremists by giving up on liberal democracy.

“Restricting our freedoms, making exceptions to constitutional rules, won’t improve our effectiveness in fighting terrorism and it will weaken the national unity that the nation needs,” he said.

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