Veritable transformation … François Hollande. Photograph: Reuters
If the Islamic State suicide bombers who attacked the Stade de France on Friday 13 November had succeeded in getting into the stadium, as seems to have been their intention, France may now be facing an added crisis of political, constitutional and existential significance: namely, the assassination of the president of the republic.
It was no secret that François Hollande, the Socialist leader who was elected to the Élysées in 2012, was attending that evening’s football match against Germany. It may reasonably be assumed he was the terrorists’ prime target. Photographs of Hollande’s ashen-faced safety detail as they hurried him away to safety indicate how close a shave this was.
Hollande’s survival has been far more than merely physical. In the torrid days following the attacks, this unprepossessing politician, who styled himself “Monsieur Normal” as he fought to unseat Nicolas Sarkozy, has morphed into an extraordinary figure – a gritty leader, common commander and “chef de guerre” – who seems, for now, nearly larger than life.
In a whirlwind of activity that integrated an historic address to parliament in Versailles, Hollande declared France to be at war with Islamist jihadism, referred to as for a global military coalition with France at its helm, demanded EU-wide support, imposed a national state of emergency and border checks, put troops on the streets, and vowed to vastly extend invasive state safety powers.
For a man when broadly dismissed as a loser and a lightweight, it was a veritable transformation. Abroad, he had possibly been very best recognized for his furtive motorcycle tryst with his actor lover, Julie Gayet, and his messy, public breakup with his Very first Lady, Valérie Trierweiler. At residence, he had endured the additional indignity of becoming rated France’s most useless president ever, with a dismal 16% approval rating recorded exactly a single year ago.
Coming from a lifelong Socialist, Hollande’s dramatic speak of unbridled war, his embrace of a very conservative security agenda, and his stated determination to mercilessly crush France’s foes seemed incongruous, to say the least. A man of notoriously diminutive stature, Hollande was all of a sudden walking tall, the John Wayne of the Champs Élysées. Soon after January’s Charlie Hebdo shootings, Hollande went seeking for causes – social exclusion, economic deprivation, alienation of young Muslims. Final week, he went searching for culprits.
François Hollande: France will by no means give in to worry – video
The important to understanding this apparent paradox may possibly lie in the nature of contemporary political leadership in times of crisis, for Hollande’s journey, as a man and statesman, is by no means unique.
Modern day leaders have available a number of familiar crisis-management tools, as well as some new ones. They variety from patriotic rhetoric, appeals to national sentiment and identity, claims of moral superiority, worry of the other, and the delegitimisation and dehumanisation of the “enemy” to genuine-time, mass-media communications, mass surveillance, and the overweening energy, reach and legal force of a modern-day government.
Unhesitating, Hollande reached for them all. Faced with a basic and outrageous challenge to the established state, the president, as the embodiment, symbol and premier workplace holder of that same state, shifted instantaneously to what might be termed crisis default position one: that is to say, he stood up, took a stand, banished all sense of doubt and self-blame, and boldly rallied the nation in defence of the republic.
As events in other nations have shown, at such moments of intense national anxiety, variations in political ideology and policy turn out to be effectively moot, at least for a although. Political point-scoring, for instance, more than glaring contradictions between the state’s most current, required actions and classic concerns about individual freedom, privacy and civil liberties is temporarily set aside.
Ordinary citizens, for the most part willingly, become celebration to this understanding. It is as though they are saying, albeit with out in fact becoming asked, that dissent is unwelcome and only serves to give comfort to the “enemy”. These who disagree, as Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn did in a distinct context about shoot-to-kill policy, are booed down. The unspoken, over-riding priority is for national unity, above all else, in the face of a widespread threat – and this fundamental notion, at such occasions, is fiercely held and practically tribal in origin.
Related: Hollande completes transformation from ‘marshmallow’ to ‘chief of war’
This phenomenon is by no means confined to France, nor is it particularly new. This collective circling of wagons at moments of peril is at least as old as the post-Enlightenment modern nation state. In terms of political rhetoric and strongman leadership, the ancient Greeks would have no problems recognising current behaviour.
A similar, unscripted physical exercise in voluntary, collective obeisance, or self-censorship, was evident in the US after 9/11, when overt opposition and media criticism of White Home counter-terrorism policies was seen as almost treasonable for a time. It was a development that thwarted accountability, discouraged transparency, and was eventually deeply injurious to American democracy and the peoples of the Middle East.
So Hollande, so far, has survived. He has ridden the tiger with aplomb. But there is a weighty down side to such “take no prisoners” crisis management, as other leaders have discovered. Hollande may however come to rue some or significantly of what he has lately set in train as normality returns the cost of such from-the-gut leadership can be higher.
The choices a leader makes between a principled and populist path, between inspirational, emotional reactivity and cautious, thought-through policy adjustment become clearer as the dust settles. And the consequences, as often, are unpredictable and frequently unwelcome. As objective political evaluations and day-to-day judgments resume, so as well does a much more rigorous, less credulous, much less trustful scrutiny, replacing mindless grief, anger and worry. This method is already gathering force in Paris.
Politics of instinct … Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, who won his current general election on a campaign of worry. Photograph: Murad Sezer/Reuters
Preceding encounter need to tell Hollande what to expect. Praised for his statesmanlike reaction to the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the so-known as “Charlie effect” on his poll ratings rapidly dissipated. Two months later, the Socialists have been trounced in the very first round of regional elections by the Sarkozy-led, centre-right opposition and by the Front National (FN) of Marine Le Pen.
History may soon repeat itself, as the FN gears up for massive advances in subsequent month’s nationwide municipal polls. Le Pen has been cautious with what she has stated, tacitly acknowledging the quick national urge to rally round the flag and the president. She is evidently anxious about becoming accused of exploiting the scenario for political obtain. But each she and Sarkozy are merely biding their time.
When the dust has settled, Hollande will most likely face redoubled efforts, all the far more furious for having been delayed, to blame him and his administration for fatal intelligence lapses and immigration policy failures, for a misguided, Mitterrand-style tolerance for “la difference” in French society, specifically where Muslims are concerned, and for an interventionist foreign policy, in the Middle East and Francophone Africa, that has made France both the target and the victim of its enemies.
Comparisons can be instructive, even though they are not encouraging. The Syrian civil war and the parallel rise of international jihadi terrorism have presented other national leaders with dilemmas and pitfalls akin to these faced by Hollande.
In Turkey earlier this month, President Recep Tayyip Erdo?an’s Justice and Improvement party (AKP) scored a famous general election victory. But Erdo?an’s campaign was based on fear: of physical and economic insecurity, of the Kurdish minority, of Isis and other extremists, of Syrian refugees and European governments bent on exploiting Turkey for their own ends.
Maybe Erdo?an really believed his own rhetoric, that he had no selection but to cast the vote in terms of friends versus enemies. But his politics of instinct may yet prove disastrously contrary to his country’s extended-term interest.
Careless rhetoric … George W Bush at Ground Zero after 9/11. Photograph: Getty Photos
The election has left Turkey utterly divided, with 49% backing Erdo?an’s way of performing items and 49% against, according to a Pew survey. Turkey is half in and half out of the battle to replace Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, half in and half out of a resumed war with Kurdish separatists, half in and half out of Europe and of an agreement to support stem the flow of refugees. If matters deteriorate, Erdo?an will be blamed.
Angela Merkel, Germany’s extended-serving and apparently unassailable chancellor, was hailed nearly as a contemporary-day Mother Teresa when she opened her borders in the summer season to thousands of migrants advancing on Germany via Greece and the Balkans. It was a heartfelt gesture, no doubt, and one that was celebrated by many in Germany resentful of the country’s post-Greece image as Europe’s heartless, penny-pinching boss.
But winter is coming, in Berlin as elsewhere, and there have been a lot of second thoughts.