Fear has returned to France—and it has always been the Front National’s best fuelby Christine Ockrent / December 4, 2015 / Leave a comment
People are buying flags. Young men are enlisting in the armed forces at an unprecedented rate. Fresh flowers are brought every day to the locations of the massacres, joining the piles of withered leaves covering bloodstains. Before it became too cold, people in the neighbourhood made it a point to have their drinks on café terraces. Soldiers and police in bulletproof vests are on patrol, weapons in sight. Paris has become less boisterous.
Since that frightful evening on 13th November, the French have shown resilience and a rare spirit of unity. President François Hollande’s actions—extending the national state of emergency for three months and embarking on retaliatory strikes against Islamic State (IS) in Syria—have received massive support, with 91 per cent of the French approving of his response. His own popularity rating, which throughout his tenure has been lower than any of his predecessors, has risen by 10 percentage points, reaching 50 per cent, his best post election score.
Ten months after the Charlie Hebdo killings, the socialist President has emerged strongly from the latest bloodbath. Ever the tactician, he stunned Parliament on 16th November by calling for a change in the Constitution to give the police exceptional powers, switching overnight from an emotional response to a political one. His status has been enhanced by the performance of his two most able ministers: Bernard Cazeneuve, the Minister of the Interior, and Jean-Yves Le Drian, the Defence Minister. Whatever the failures in intelligence, their handling of the fallout from the attacks has won praise on all sides.
How will these dramatic events translate into political terms? The conservative opposition is in disarray. Its traditional monopoly over police and security issues has been swept away. The Republican leader Nicolas Sarkozy, normally boastful, has not performed well. Out of sync with the public mood, he first supported the Elysée’s response only to criticise its shortcomings the next day and encourage his MPs to attack the government in Parliament. The official mourning period was still in effect and the scene, broadcast on national tele-vision, did not go down well. The confusion among Les Républicains heightened when Alain Juppé, Sarkozy’s main rival for the party primaries due to take place in the autumn, expressed full support of Hollande’s actions, calling for national unity rather than political bickering.
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On the left, the customary Socialist Party rattling over Prime Minister Manuel Valls’s “liberal” economic policies has given way to subdued criticism of his overly martial stance and his alarmist warnings about the risk of biological and chemical attacks. Yet the party has no other choice but to tighten up the rank and file. And there are side benefits: the most blatant failures of the past three years have faded away for the moment—unemployment, growing in-equalities, the lack of structural reforms and even the deficit. On the extreme left, politicians and commentators hesitate to break with the message of national unity.
So far, the debate over the possible infringement of civil liberties by the state of emergency has not taken off. Official calls for restraint, for example, not to put photographs of the dead at the Bataclan concert hall on Twitter, have been quietly respected.
Among French intellectuals, even the most raucous proponents of freedom of speech have been content to write against the common enemy: terror. Only Michel Onfray, the self-promoted “philo-sopher of the people,” broke ranks. “Right and left sowed war against political Islam, and now they are reaping it back,” he wrote on Twitter. Onfray, who has called for negotiations with IS, was heavily criticised for his Tweet, which was used approvingly by IS on its own propaganda channels.
All this leaves the far right as the main political beneficiary. “See! All of the Front National’s arguments are proven right!” was the message of party leader Marine le Pen with a half smile the day after the attacks. There was no need for her to shout and scream about the elites’ incapacity to cope with the real issues. Islam, immigration, multiculturalism, open borders, Schengen, Europe—Le Pen’s favourite targets are all represented, and her political harvest promises to be bountiful.
Three French voters out of 10 would now rally her arguments. The December elections could well bring Marine in the north and her niece Marion in the south at the helm of two of the biggest regions in the country. In time, the tune of national unity is bound to fade. The stock market has not been directly affected, but high street sales were down and department stores empty. Fear has returned—and it has always been the Front National’s best fuel.