Hollande goes to war

The French president launched a war in Mali just as his popularity hit an all-time low
December 10, 2012 - Oslo, Norway: French President Francois Hollande arrives at The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo. (Alexander Widding/Polaris) ///
Alexander Widding/Polaris

François Hollande probably never expected to be a wartime president. To be fair, until Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the French Socialist Party’s presumed nominee for president, flamed out amid allegations of sexual assault in 2011, Hollande likely never expected he’d lead the country at all.

He is an “accidental” president, says John Gaffney, co-director of the Aston Centre for Europe at Aston University in Britain, one who triumphed over incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy—whose pomposity made a nation sick of him after only one term in office—largely by virtue of the fact that he wasn’t Sarkozy.

Still, to the extent that Hollande seemed likely to do anything bold, launching a unilateral war would not have featured on many analysts’ predictions before this year. Hollande campaigned on a promise to end France’s combat role in Afghanistan a year earlier than scheduled, and did so. In October, during a visit to Senegal, he declared the end of the era of Françafrique, referring to France’s meddling in its former African colonies.

Then, this January, al-Qaeda’s North African franchise, along with allied Islamist groups who had controlled the northern two-thirds of Mali since last spring, began pushing south toward the capital, Bamako. Mali’s fragile post-coup government called on France for help, and France responded with force. Other Western countries, including Canada, are helping with logistics and training, but among them only France has troops actively fighting on the ground. This week they marched into the former Islamist stronghold of Timbuktu. Suddenly Françafrique was back.

The French intervention is, so far, popular in France and in northern Mali, where residents have enthusiastically cheered the end of the Islamists’ repressive and stultifying control over the lives. But what does it mean for François Hollande?

“It was a big boost for him, because he demonstrated that when necessary he was a man who could take a bold and courageous decision,” says a former senior French diplomat who asked not to be named.

“Having said that, it is the beginning [of the military mission]. In taking this decision, he knew he would spend the rest of his mandate at the Élysée Palace with Mali on his shoulders. Because what he has started is the easy part.”

Surges in popularity driven by war don’t always last. Former U.S. president George W. Bush enjoyed a boost as the Afghanistan war began in response to al-Qaeda’s 9/11 attacks on the United States, but ended his second term with a subterranean approval rating. Bush’s father, George H.W. Bush, led the United States during its short, victorious, and low-casualty war against Iraq in 1991. Less than two years later, he lost the presidency to Bill Clinton.

The Mali intervention has given Hollande some “breathing space,” says Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, an arm of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, but it will not be sustainable. Techau also questions whether Hollande’s decision to send troops to Mali was really all that courageous. “In terms of political costs incurred on the home front, it’s very small. This was something that was popular. You don’t need tremendous leadership to do this. It’s a lot less costly politically than doing labour market reform, or retirement age reform, or tax reform. So it’s not really a test of leadership.”

Mali may present Hollande with more of a political challenge the longer French involvement in the war there lasts. France hopes that soon Malians, bolstered by soldiers from other West African countries, will secure the country on their own. This may prove difficult. West African forces simply don’t have the training or equipment the French do, and last year the Malians were routed by the same Islamists they’re now fighting. “It’s very difficult to win these conflicts,” says Ronald Hatto, a senior lecturer at the Institute for Political Studies, or Sciences-Po, in Paris. “So France will have to stay there a long time.”

A prolonged deployment will stretch France financially at a time when it doesn’t have money to spare. This, too, is a risk for Hollande.

Yet it is not a penchant for risk-taking, but instead paralyzing timidity that has made Hollande’s presidency until now a poor one in the eyes of many French. “When he entered office, he quickly turned out to be the kind of man that his political opponents had characterized him as: indecisive, not willing to take a risk, not a firm leader. He became a type of caricature,” says Techau.

Hollande hobbled himself by campaigning on “a fairy-tale agenda,” says Techau. “He told the French that everything would be fine, that the country can afford early retirement age, that basically the French way was the right way, and that urgent reforms were not needed.”

But urgent reforms were needed. France struggles with a massive deficit and the jobless rate has hit its highest level since 1998. Labour Minister Michel Sapin, in apparently unscripted remarks during a radio interview this week, said the country was “totally bankrupt.”

Hollande tried taxing the rich. But a planned 75 per cent rate on France’s wealthiest citizens was ruled unconstitutional. This didn’t stop actor Gérard Depardieu from renouncing his French citizenship and moving to Russia in protest. France’s richest man, Bernard Arnault, head of the luxury-goods conglomerate LVMH, has similarly transferred the bulk of his assets to Belgium—where he also applied for citizenship. There have even been reports that Sarkozy himself might move to London to set up a private equity fund and dodge Hollande’s tax plans for the wealthy.

Hollande has brought in some market reforms, including a “competiveness pact” that gives a tax credit to the corporate sector, but they are modest in the face of France’s quite serious economic problems. “He hasn’t really prepared the average French person for the tough times to come,” says Timothy Smith, a history professor at Queen’s University.

This has predictably disappointed French on the centre right. But Hollande has also done little that might generate enthusiasm on the left and among the less wealthy.

Gaffney, who is also a visiting professor at Sciences-Po in Rennes, France, argues that Hollande came into office with significant political capital to spend. His Socialist Party is powerful, dominating the National Assembly as well as the mayoralties of several big cities. And now, early in his five-year mandate, he has an opportunity to make major changes without immediately having to worry about re-election. Instead, says Gaffney, Hollande has done “next to nothing. The French have been jaw-droppingly puzzled by his inaction.”

As an example, Gaffney cites the state of the banlieues, the suburbs, ringing many French cities. Populated disproportionately by immigrants and their descendents, the banlieues suffer from high levels of poverty and violence and are on occasion swept by riots and arson.

During the campaign, Hollande at least gave the impression he cared. He went on the hustings there and was greeted with excitement and affection. His team, in an improbably brilliant piece of propaganda, then cut a video of the bland-looking Hollande campaigning in the banlieues set to the hip-hop song Niggas in Paris by rappers Kanye West and Jay-Z. “Don’t underestimate the strength of your decision,” Hollande tells a crowd in a genuinely rousing clip. “With universal suffrage, one vote is worth as much as another. While some are richer than you . . . you, you are more numerous than them.”

The plight of the banlieues has bedevilled French politicians for years, and clearly there are no easy solutions. But it appears that Hollande has lost his momentum in the suburbs as well. Last fall, two young men were brutally beaten to death by a gang of other youths in a poor banlieue of Grenoble. Hollande visited the neighbourhood where the crime took place to meet with families of the victims.

While there, a hijab-wearing woman plaintively called out to him from an apartment balcony: “These two can’t be dead for nothing,” she said as the president stood on the street below her. “It’s like Texas here. Where are we, Mr. President? I voted for you. All these people voted for you.”

She’s not alone in her disappointment. Mali has allowed Hollande to at least temporarily shed his reputation for cautious indecisiveness. But he’s got bigger problems at home.