The Politics of Terrorism Lead Desperate Hollande to Embrace Sarkozy

(AP Photo)

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, poses with current President Francois Hollande prior to their meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, Thursday, January 8, 2015, in connection with a terrorist attack. Police hunted Thursday for two heavily armed men, one with possible links to al-Qaida, in the methodical killing of 12 people at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that caricatured the Prophet Muhammed.

In recent days France has seen 13 people killed in 2 terrorist attacks. A third attack is underway as I write. What will be the political fallout from these events?

Because the alleged attackers have been linked in press reports to a jihadi recruitment organization known as the Buttes-Chaumont network, it is natural to assume that the Front National (FN), a party of the extreme right noted for its hostility to what it sees as growing Islamist influence in the French suburbs, will be the primary beneficiary. Even before the attacks, some polls indicated that the FN, led by Marine Le Pen, is now the largest party in France. Le Pen’s party will thus likely receive a boost in municipal and regional elections scheduled for later this year.

The Front National therefore threatens the two parties that have dominated the French political scene for 40 years: the currently ruling Socialist Party (PS) and the center-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). Racked by a recent scandal that led to the ouster of former party leader Jean-François Copé, the UMP is now headed by former president Nicolas Sarkozy. In the wake of the first terror attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, President François Hollande, who defeated Sarkozy in 2012, decided to make a show of national unity against terrorism by inviting his erstwhile rival to meet with him at the Elysée.

The staging of the event was interesting: The two men sat in identical armchairs, face to face, in the presidential palace. Beyond national unity, the photograph of this meeting that was released to the press contained an ulterior message: that the parties represented by these two men constituted the “republican” rampart against the threat of terrorism. The Front National, France’s third major party, was not represented.

The tête-à-tête with Hollande also had the effect of rehabilitating Sarkozy, whose image had been tarnished by numerous allegations of corruption. In a national emergency, however, it was to Sarkozy that Hollande turned, raising the status of his former nemesis to that of officially anointed leader of the opposition and effacing memories of scandal attached to his name. The leaders of France’s other parties, including Marine Le Pen, were also invited to meet with the president, but only after the “summit” meeting with Sarkozy. The difference in status was underscored by the difference in protocol. In short, the carefully crafted publicity surrounding these meetings suggested a desire to reduce the French political contest to a PS-UMP duopoly, banishing the FN to the antipodes.

Then Hollande announced that Sunday, January 11, would be a day of national mourning in which all political parties were invited to participate, except the FN. PS spokesman François Lamy later declared that the FN had not been invited because it was a party that “divides the country and plays on fear.” The irony of excluding the country’s largest party from an event intended to demonstrate national unity was apparently lost on Lamy, who said he could not understand why the question of FN participation was even being raised. He also said, however, that it was perfectly “normal” for the president to receive Marine Le Pen at the Elysée to discuss the situation, since he was also receiving the leaders of all the other parties. All of which indicates the fancy footwork that will be required for Hollande’s strategy to work.

Hollande, whose approval rating has rebounded slightly from its low ebb of 13 percent—the lowest in the history of the Fifth Republic—has apparently decided that his strategy going forward will be to demonize the FN, even if it means helping Sarkozy win the endorsement of the UMP over his principal rival, former prime minister Alain Juppé, as that party’s next presidential candidate. Polling suggests that Juppé would be a stronger opponent than Sarkozy. The terror attacks have provided the president with a way to influence the complex political maneuvering on the right in a manner he hopes will turn out to be to his political advantage. He is playing a weak hand, however, and his calculations could well prove wrong.

Meanwhile, Marine Le Pen will emphasize the injustice of her victimization and insist that it proves that the PS and UMP are conspiring to silence the true voice of the people of France, which she is confident she represents.