French president comforts, unites nation in crisis

AP , Tuesday 13 Jan 2015

French President Francois Hollande closes his eyes as he attends a national tribute at the Paris Prefecture for the three police officers killed during last week's attacks by Islamic militants, January 13, 2015 (Photo: Reuters)

French President Francois Hollande comforted and united his nation during its worst terrorist attacks in decades, transforming himself from the most unpopular leader of modern France into the "father of the nation" and a statesman who brought world leaders together to link arms and march through Paris to defy extremism.

His prime minister, Manuel Valls, also emerged stronger after the three days of terrorist attacks that left 20 dead, managing the muscular operational reaction including deploying thousands of troops and police.

At least for now, the two Socialists' handling of the crisis could boost their standing, and may play a role in voters' minds if either or both seek the presidency in 2017.

Hollande's successful management of the crisis was the more surprising. Center-left Le Monde, a frequent critic of Hollande, wrote in a headline Monday that he made "no mistake" during the drama unfolding last week.

The French president — once dismissed by a rival as "soft as a strawberry" and lacking leadership mettle — appeared Sunday among more than 40 world leaders, at the forefront of a rally that gathered over a million people.

With measured aplomb, he incarnated the traditional figure of the "father of the nation," said Jerome Fourquet, director of opinion and corporate strategies at the Ifop polling institute.

In keeping with his pugnacious style, Valls took a more aggressive stance — notably declaring "war" on radical Islam. A familiar face to the French, his international profile rose thanks to media attention throughout the crisis.

Instead of fomenting fear, Hollande gave the image of a comforting figure, for instance when he embraced Patrick Pelloux, an emergency doctor who is also a columnist at Charlie Hebdo. The emotional image of him hugging German Chancellor Angela Merkel, eyes shut, close to his cheek, has been widely published around the world.

Hollande sank to record low popularity last year, in a context of lagging economy and unemployment rate over 10 percent. He faced a rebellion in his own Socialist camp about his economic strategy, and was widely criticized for his indecisiveness.

Moreover, he was mocked for his tendency to excess weight, and his notoriously complicated private life.

Yet Hollande had demonstrated before that he could be decisive on the international scene. He launched a military intervention against Islamist extremists in Mali two years ago and another one to prevent a civil war in Central African Republic. He also involved France in U.S-led coalition fighting against the Islamic state group in Iraq.

Last week, "he did not commit any faux pas or mistake in terms of communication, and we can objectively think he came up to the great expectations of the French people," Fourquet said.

Jean-Daniel Levy, director of political opinion department at polling institute Harris Interactive, believed that Hollande has met the nation's expectations to "provide leadership," ''take decisions at the right time" and "use the right words."

As soon as he was informed of the attack at Charlie Hebdo, Hollande came to the scene. When the three attackers were killed Friday in two nearly simultaneous clashes with security forces, Hollande was setting the strategy in his office with police chiefs, Valls and the interior minister, according to a top official source.

Later the same day, he urged his nation to remain united and vigilant. His call to French people to mobilize for the march to show values of democracy, freedom and pluralism brought "a positive outlook" on the country, Levy said.

Hollande's main challenge now will be preventing the attacks from fueling anti-Muslim sentiment and handing an even bigger boost to far right leader Marine Le Pen, whose anti-immigrant National Front party has long warned about the "Islamization" of France.

Frederic Micheau, director of the opinion department at Opinionway, a polling institute that conducted a survey last week partially before and after the attack at Charlie Hebdo, noted a jump of several points in the popularity of Hollande and Valls.

"In these moments there is a patriotic reflex of supporting state institutions, and the first of them is the president of the Republic," Micheau said.

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