“France is at war” This was how President Hollande started the speech of his political career. With France reeling from the worse attack on metropolitan French soil since the Second World War. it demanded a speech which stirred the French soul and demanded unity out of adversity. On Monday, in the classical surroundings of the Palace of Versailles with composure and resolute determination, Hollande conjured the echoes of De Gaulle.
Addressing the Joint Congress of Parliament, François Hollande declared war on Islamic State in the wake of the deadly Paris attacks last Friday in which 129 were killed and scores were left with life-changing injuries. As the stories from victims of the attack began to surface, it was a night of tragedy and brutality interspersed with sparks of humanity and individual heroism. At times of national tragedy, the electorate look to their leaders for solidarity and direction. France demanded a strong man and a strong man stepped forward.
The Palace of Versailles is the architectural symbol of absolutism and the glory of France. It is little wonder that President “bling-bling” Nicolas Sarkozy chose the grand surroundings of the Congress Room to make his joint Presidential addresses since the Constitutional Reform in 2008. The room itself echoes the exceptional constitutional power of the French President ever since De Gaulle’s foundation of the Fifth Republic in 1959.
It was the “blood, toil, tears, and sweat’ moment” which one military defence expert demanded. There was little conciliation in this speech and an aggressive tone. He pushed for the state of emergency, and all the draconian measures that is allows, to extend beyond its constitutional 12 days. These measures include significant power for the security services to raid homes without judicial oversight and checks on the free movement of people in France. This was a president making it clear that right now securité takes precedence over liberté. He now has a race against time to use these extra powers if the Assembly do not grant him power to extend the state of emergency. These 12 days since the attack will be a flurry of action.
Hollande has stepped uneasily into the Gaullist presidential image. An image provoked by war. As Charles de Gaulle proclaimed in his first broadcast in June 1940, “To deliberate is the act of many. To act is the act of one. Faced with crisis, the man of character falls back on himself. He imposes his own stamp of action, takes responsibility for it, makes it his own” In his speech, Hollande took the initiative. His response was a hammer blow to those who attacked him for being “indecisive” or the “marshmallow” president.
His tough and bellicose rhetoric is a political blow to the French far right in the form of the Front National’s Marine Le Pen. Hollande had embodied a united and determined France before Le Pen had her chance to take centre stage with nationalist, anti-immigration rhetoric. It is refreshing to see Hollande embody Gaullist values of patriotism over nationalism. It was a way of thinking that De Gaulle reiterated in an interview with Life Magazine in 1969. On leaving the presidency, he recalled that “Patriotism is when love of your own people comes first; nationalism is when hate for people other than your own comes first.”
François Hollande spoke of a “cool determination” needed to defeat the “abomination” that has taken the lives of so many innocent people. In Versailles, he purveyed a deep sense of personal strength and responsibility. Two years after he was voted the most unpopular French president on record, his turn around is remarkable. When it counted, Hollande was there. He has channelled his inner De Gaulle and France has united behind him.
Image credit: Nick St. Charles