France’s Hollande Fires Warning That He Won’t Be Counted Out Yet

  • President hinted re-election hopes in hourlong Paris speech
  • Multiple rivals heap pressure on Hollande to show his hand

French President Francois Hollande fired a volley of warning shots at the rivals aiming to take his job after next year’s election, signaling that he hasn’t yet given up hope of claiming a second term.

After former President Nicolas Sarkozy launched his bid last month accusing the government of being soft on terrorists, and Economy Minister Emmanuel Macron quit the cabinet saying it was an obstacle to solving voters’ problems, Hollande reminded the contenders he’s still prepared to wield the power of the presidency in an hour-long speech Thursday littered with jabs at his opponents.

Hollande speaks on Sept. 8.

Photographer: Christophe Ena/AFP via Getty Images

“They think that the election will be the primaries,” the 62-year-old leader told a crowd of supporters in Paris, alluding to the confidence of the opposition Republicans. “Well, in a democracy, there is an election. It’s not that easy.”

Some of the advisers had urged their boss to use his first big speech of the new semester to give a clear signal that he intends to seek a second term in order to reassert his relevance in the national debate and Prime Minister Manuel Valls this week called on his boss to make the case for a second term. The president’s advisers had briefed before the speech there would be no official declaration.

The bulk of the speech was indeed a statesmanlike reflection on how France’s democratic values can bolster its response to terrorism and bind together its different traditions. Yet the president also launched a series of thinly veiled attacks on Sarkozy’s plans to use unconstitutional and extra-judicial methods to fight terrorism and wound up with his clearest hint so far that he still has ambitions to run.

“I won’t let the image of France be stained in the coming months or in the coming years,” he told a crowd of some 600 lawmakers and party supporters in the center of Paris.

Macron Jumps Ship

As the election campaign gathers pace, Hollande is trying to keep his head above water with allies abandoning him, some in his party looking at alternative candidates and polls showing him the most unpopular leader in French history. The more cautious counselors who’ve prevailed so far begged him to hold off on a formal announcement until December so that he can remain above the fray and capitalize on the prestige of being head of state.

The French presidency has taken a battering under its current occupant.

The latest wound was the drawn-out defection of Macron, his one-time protege. The 38-year-old had been a member of Hollande’s inner circle at the Elysee Palace before becoming a minister but began to distance himself from his mentor in April, setting up his own political movement. He quit the government last month, yet he still hasn’t made it clear whether he’ll run.

Hollande’s shadow adviser Julien Dray said in an interview in Liberation newspaper that Macron’s betrayal couldn’t go unanswered and it was time for the president “to get himself worked up.” Another long-time friend of Hollande, who asked not to be named discussing a private conversation, said he’d advised the president against responding and to remain dignified despite his deep disappointment.

Polling Pain

Macron would beat Hollande by at least four percentage points in the first round of next year, according to a poll conducted by TNS-Sofres-OnePoint for Le Figaro newspaper. It gets worse for the Socialists -- by dividing the left-wing vote both candidates would be eliminated, leaving Sarkozy or former Prime Minister Alain Juppe from the Republicans to face Marine Le Pen in the runoff. In fact, surveys suggest there’s no likely scenario in which either Hollande or Macron survives the first round.

For Bruno Le Roux, the Socialist whip at the National Assembly, polls don’t matter and Hollande will be the candidate.

“He is the only one that can represent us on the left. The other candidates are just creating havoc and they have no legitimacy,” he said in an interview on the sidelines before Hollande’s speech. “He will take the time and show everyone he is a great leader for our party and for France.”

With eight months to go before they choose their next leader, French voters are facing a panoply of candidates from Arnaud Montebourg on the left, another disenchanted former Hollande minister, to National Front leader Le Pen.

Sarkozy’s Pitch

Polls show that voters are worried about terrorism, skeptical that any of the candidates can revive the economy, and divided on whether their national identity should adapt to the waves of immigration from Africa that have created Muslim ghettos on the outskirts of many cities.

Sarkozy has played on those concerns to invigorate his own campaign as he seeks revenge for his defeat by Hollande in 2012. He’s pledged to increase controls on immigration and shunt illegal migrants in Calais heading for the U.K. onto British soil. As the burkini controversy raged over the summer, Sarkozy vowed to change the law to stop Muslim women wearing full-body swim wear because it undermined French values.

Hollande set out a very different vision of the country Thursday.

“Freedom is not a handicap, it’s our strength,” he said. “We must assure security but without giving up living how we want. The terrorists have launched not one challenge but two: to defeat them, and to remain ourselves.”