This must surely be the roughest time in a presidency characterized by rough times: In front of the Élysée Palace, just as everywhere else in the country, the tricolore is flying half-mast. While France is holding an official day of mourning, its head of government, François Hollande, finds himself in the spotlight yet again.
Just one day after the attacks on the newsroom of the satirical Parisian newspaper “Charlie Hebdo“, a political storm has started to brew – and it is hard to foresee who or what it will blow aside. François Hollande, the already unpopular president, finds himself in the eye of the storm. Already, he was barely considered a winner: Following the revelation of his affair with an actress and multiple defeats of his party in municipal elections, the president had become deeply unpopular. Even worse: Due to the recent success of Marine Le Pen’s National Front party, Hollande was under pressure to address the dangers of religious fundamentalism in France – and that was before an attack by young Islamists. Now, self-proclaimed defenders of the Occident are bound to uphold Michel Houellebecq’s new novel “Submission” as a dire warning.
How should Hollande react? There is no script, no blueprint on how to act in crises like these, which is why they become the moments in which politicians enter the history books – either in a positive or a negative sense. The German journalist Michael Spreng said it best: “Under pressure, some politicians turn into diamonds. Other politicians disintegrate into gravel.“
Defeat the reflexes
Jens Stoltenberg turned into a diamond. Faced with one of the deadliest attacks in the European post-war history – the bombing attack and shooting rampage of Anders Breivik – the former Norwegian prime minister managed to find the right words:
Our response will be more democracy, more openness.
His declaration was a direct challenge to the enemies of an open society: Those trying to intimidate us will fail. Those who want to limit freedom (of the press) won’t manage to even put a dent in the democracy it is based on. Sadly, such a reaction isn’t the default: George W. Bush used 9/11 to justify torture. Tony Blair not only took Britain’s trash cans away, he also installed thousands of surveillance cameras. Ultimately, such reactions make survivors pay: Not with their lives but with their liberty.
Therefore, it helps to remember the truth in Benjamin Franklins words: Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither. Insisting on such truths may seem cruel (particularly in the light of a terrible atrocity) but that is precisely wherein lies the greatness of such rhetoric: It defeats political reflexes. For Stoltenberg it also secured a positive entry in the history books.
With the elections in sight, fear breathing down his neck and under pressure from all sides, is is questionable that Hollande will turn into a diamond. I just hope that the French president won’t disintegrate.
Translated from German