It was the speech of a lifetime for French President Francois Hollande, and it’s clear that he understood this well.
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Hollande’s appearance was and remains dull, and he is hardly a brilliant orator. But when he entered the grand hall of the Palace of Versailles, where the two houses of Parliament convened in a highly unusual move, the president was determined, resolute and uncompromising. He is determined to restore a feeling of security to the French people and to rescue what remains of his term.
At the Stade de France on Friday night, when the scope of the terror attack started to become clear, Hollande told those around him that this was “war.” His dramatic address Monday showed that this wasn’t just rhetoric. For several long moments he explained to parliament the dramatic significance he ascribed to this declaration.
The setting chosen for his speech, the most magnificent palace in the world, built by Louis XIV for himself, elicits both in France and abroad associations of a royalist, absolute regime, from whose ruins the French Republic emerged. But there is no better place than the palace of the “sun king” for the French president to demonstrate the almost unlimited power that the French Constitution grants him. It’s rather unusual for a democracy, and far broader than in the United States, for example.
Hollande made it clear Monday that he plans to use this authority to implement a series of draconian measures against the immediate terror threat still hovering over France. In addition to extending the state of emergency by three months, he has requested, and will receive, a constitutional revision that will allow him to conduct a war on terror that will involve significant limitations on the civil freedoms so close to the French heart.
He doesn’t plan to take it slowly. Liberte is out; securite is in. Some of the ideas (some would say most of them) seem to come from the platforms of European right-wing parties, even the extreme right-wing: Stripping even native-born dual citizens of their French citizenship if they are involved in terror; the expulsion of foreign nationals suspected of terror; changing the rules of engagement for the security forces; and adding thousands of policemen, detectives, prosecutors and border guards, all of which means a substantial increase in the defense budget.
Hollande also proved that he’d learned a lot from his wily mentor, the late Socialist president Francois Mitterand, when he made sure to straightjacket the judicial authorities. Hollande did not dimiss suggestions by Nicolas Sarkozy and Marine Le Pen regarding administrative detention of the thousands of Islamists on the security authorities’ watch list, without having to produce the evidence needed to jail them. Hollande said a proposal on the issue would be submitted to the Constitutional Council, to which he rolled that hot potato.
Practically speaking, he opened the door to taking the dramatic step of keeping thousands of people under administrative house arrest, which no Western nation has attempted in such dimensions since World War II. If after the attacks one might ask if and how France will be able to preserve its fundamental principles, first and foremost liberty, Hollande made it clear, in a fashion Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wouldn’t hesitate to adopt, that life in many ways itself takes priority over sacred freedoms.
The president and members of parliament also broke into a collective rendition of the Marseillaise, almost certainly the most militaristic national anthem in the Western world. “To arms, citizens Let impure blood water our furrows,” says the anthem’s well-known chorus. And that’s what Francois Hollande promised his people Monday – blood, and also sweat and tears, en route to “eradicating terror.”
As with all wars, it sounds promising during the first speech, but making it happen will be long and painful.