The writer is a contributing editor to The Post. His e-mail is email@example.com.
A French friend living in the United States surprised me a few weeks ago by saying: “For the first time in memory, French and American politics start to resemble each other.” The thought has been haunting me since the savage massacres of French citizens in Paris on Friday.
It is not just the echoes of 9/11. In ways they have not in recent years, French politics suddenly matter to us all. All democratic nations have an enormous stake in how the French shoulder the unwanted burden of increased leadership in the fight against the self-styled Islamic State.
An already intensely polemical run-up to French regional voting next month and national elections in 2017 will be further inflamed by this tragedy. Indeed, the intent of the Islamic State killers was probably to provoke civil strife in France, especially between Christians and Muslims. They want to spread their “holy war” beyond the Middle East. It is vital that France not take that bait, while remaining resolved to take the battle to the group on its home ground.
This will not be an easy balance to maintain. Part of my friend’s analysis was that French political attacks on opposing candidates have become more vehement, destructive and media-driven à l’Américaine. He also referred to the similar, fear-driven campaigns run by many of our politicians and the general confusion and gloom of two electorates facing enormous choices. The French in 2017 and the Americans in 2016 will be choosing not only who their next leaders are, but also what kind of nation each one is.
Just as most Republican presidential candidates have made hostility to undocumented immigrants central to their campaigns, hotheads of France’s far-right-wing National Front blame their country’s mounting problems almost entirely on a Muslim minority that comes originally from Arab and African countries.
The center holds no more firmly in France than it does in the United States. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy seeks his conservative Republican party’s nomination by trying to co-opt National Front and other rightist voters, and competes with National Front leader Marine Le Pen in his admiration for the cultural values, decisive methods and anti-gay comments of Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Sarkozy has jumped ahead of former prime minister Alain Juppé, a safe if uncharismatic choice, in the nomination race.
Ironically, the strongest electoral asset possessed by the generally unpopular Socialist President François Hollande has been his muscular and well-managed military campaigns against jihadists in Mali, Iraq and Syria. Despite the price France has just paid in retaliation, Hollande is likely to double down on using force abroad to protect the French at home — making him an even more valuable military ally for President Obama, who remains reluctant to involve more U.S. forces in the Middle East.
While urging national calm, Hollande asked the French Parliament on Monday to enact law-and-order measures that seemed to inspire little immediate confidence that they will forestall future attacks. That is in part a problem of having Friday’s well-coordinated slaughter, and January’s attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine, occur on his watch.
Hollande’s government was not so much asleep at the switch as late to catch up with the murderous tensions it perceived. It was aware that the Islamic State, using the “enemy within,” would seek to stage a European 9/11, as French Prime Minister Manuel Valls warned in an interview with The Post last year. Valls has been diligent in getting laws augmenting police powers enacted but now must explain to a grief-stricken electorate why those measures fell short.
The psychological dimension of the struggle to balance war abroad in Muslim lands with domestic calm will be crucial.
In five decades of living in and visiting France, I have frequently heard the country’s political and economic elites predict the imminent decline of a once-great nation. I have always taken it with a grain of salt, coming from a resilient, productive but highly self-critical people.
This time there is reason to wonder. A crippling brain drain , national political confusion and a loss of economic vitality form a dispiriting backdrop to the Islamic State’s targeting of ordinary French citizens for butchery.
But the French can be at their best in confronting a challenge to their nationhood and their pride. In that too they resemble Americans. For that and many other reasons — including that talent for self-criticism — they deserve our support, as well as our sympathy for their losses.