Gunmen single out François Hollande, and leave him with few palatable responses

PARIS — For the second time this year, France has found itself singled out for calculated terrorist attacks that have at once stunned and united the country. But perhaps no one was singled out by Friday’s carnage more than the nation’s leader, President François Hollande.

Hollande was in the soccer stadium that was the attackers’ most spectacular target — a thwarted attempt by suicide bombers to blow themselves up under his very nose.

His name was evoked by the attackers who stormed a rock concert on the other side of Paris, declaring, according to a witness, that their carnage “was the fault of Hollande. This was the fault of your president. He didn’t have to intervene in Syria.’’


It was a strike not only at France but also at his policies, presidency and leadership, at home and abroad.

That messy reality presents Hollande with a particularly stark quandary: Taking the fight even more aggressively to Syria and Iraq — as he pledged to do Saturday — carries the risk that doing so will invite still more attacks from the Islamic State and its sympathizers and fan simmering divisions between Muslims and non-Muslims in France.

Hollande faced a similar dilemma in January after the attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store. But this time — with more than seven times as many killed and hundreds wounded — it is far harder to reassure the country, while far fewer palatable options remain for a way forward.

Hollande and his government have already taken controversial and increasingly intrusive steps to track domestic threats. Yet none of those measures managed to stop Friday’s massacres, raising the uncomfortable question of what more can be done.

At the same time, Hollande, never very popular, remains politically vulnerable. The tensions with France’s Muslim population — the largest in Europe — are exactly what the far-right National Front party has played on to gain ground against him and his Socialist Party over the past several years.


After the attacks Friday, the National Front leader, Marine Le Pen, criticized the measures Hollande has taken so far as insufficient and called for a far more drastic stand against the presence of extremist Muslims on French soil.

The temptation for Hollande now is to get tough. He was quick to impose a temporary state of emergency and declared Friday’s attacks not merely terrorism but “an act of war.’’ It is, however, a war in which the battle lines are ever more blurred between home and abroad.

“Hollande has chosen very firm language — he’s said we will be ‘merciless’ — but it does raise the question: What more can we do? What laws can we toughen?’’ said Camille Grand, director of the Foundation for Strategic Research, a leading French think tank.

Françoise Fressoz, a columnist for the newspaper Le Monde, described Hollande as having few options.

“The political context is very different because we are on the verge of regional elections and after that the presidential elections, and he is being pushed to harden his rhetoric,’’ she said, noting that there is not so much more that Hollande can do to make people feel secure after an attack like the one on Friday.

The situation France faces has some things in common with the one the United States confronted after Sept. 11, 2001: how to balance civil liberties and an open society with security. The United States chose to curtail civil liberties, tighten its borders and undertake military actions.

Hollande appears to be tracing a similar path. Having already tightened domestic security laws, he looks likely to be pushed toward his far-right opponents’ position against open borders, and he seems to be on the verge of intensifying military action in Syria and Iraq.


Most difficult will be future immigration policy. Le Pen, the National Front leader, sounded almost pragmatic Saturday as news emerged from the Paris prosecutor, François Molins, that at least one of the attackers had come with the refugees fleeing Syria who had crossed into Europe from Greece.

“The president of the republic announced a state of emergency and temporary border controls, and that’s all well and good,’’ said Le Pen. “But what about the European Union? It is essential that France takes back control of its national borders.’’

Since 1985, when the Schengen Agreement went into the effect, a gradually increasing number of countries of continental Europe agreed to the free movement of people across their borders within Europe. Today there are 26 signatories.

This year’s flood of migrants into Europe has frayed the commitment to the visa-free zone and fanned anti-immigrant sentiments, bolstering far-right movements in France, Scandinavia and Holland.

But nowhere more so than in France, where Le Pen’s language after Friday’s terrorist attacks, although vitriolic, received little criticism and left Hollande, who has backed the ideal of a visa-free Europe, with little to back up his support for that policy.

“France has been made vulnerable. She must rearm,’’ said Le Pen, who also called for radical Islam to be “destroyed.’’

“France must forbid Islamic organizations, close radical mosques, exile foreigners who preach hate on our land,’’ she said.

Even before the terrorist attacks, the push across much of Europe, with the major exception of Germany, to stop the ballooning influx of migrants was weakening the commitment to a borderless bloc. But with terrorism on top of that, it seems just a matter of time before restrictions are institutionalized throughout the Continent.

Jump To Comments