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Tue Nov 24, 2015, 10:07 AM

After Paris attacks, French leaders reposition for presidential race

Hollande plays father of nation, Sarkozy torn
By: Reuters | Paris | November 18, 2015 12:46 PM

While France mourns the dead in the Paris attacks by Islamic State, President Francois Hollande and his two likely main challengers are calibrating their response with one eye on the 2017 presidential election.

Francois Hollande, 61, a Socialist who is deeply unpopular due to high unemployment and economic stagnation, is using the advantages of incumbency to reinvent himself as a decisive war leader and a compassionate father of the nation.

Nicolas Sarkozy, 60, his centre-right predecessor, is hesitating between statesmanlike support for national unity at a time of crisis in the wake of Paris attacks and the itch to criticise a successor he has always belittled as weak and irresolute.

Paradoxically, hard right National Front (FN) leader Marine Le Pen, 47, initially softened her shrill anti-Islamist, anti-immigration rhetoric after the Paris attacks, apparently convinced that events were turning voters in her direction anyway. It didn’t last long.

In what many have called France’s “9/11 moment”, Hollande won a standing ovation from a rare joint session of parliament on Monday after declaring that France was “at war” with Islamic State militants, and would wage a merciless campaign against them while beefing up its internal security. The respected centre-left daily Le Monde headlined it “Hollande’s security U-turn.”



Hollande, whose approval rating had sunk to 13 percent, the lowest in the history of France’s 57-year-old Fifth Republic, enjoyed a brief bounce after his widely praised handling of a previous set of deadly Islamist attacks on the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish supermarket in Paris in January.

The president led a million-person march with world leaders in support of freedom of speech after overseeing decisive police intervention that saved dozens of lives then, and striking a tone that embodied national dignity and determination.

The upturn did not last long. The Socialists suffered heavy losses in municipal elections in March. The economy has since begun to pick up slowly, and unemployment finally seems to have peaked, but Hollande has drawn scant political benefit.

He has said he will seek re-election in 2017 only if his government has succeeded in reversing the rise in jobless rolls.

In the three-horse presidential race that was shaping up before the Paris attacks, many analysts were predicting the left could be eliminated on the first round, as Socialist Lionel Jospin was in 2002, leaving a run-off between Sarkozy and Le Pen. Her father was beaten in the second round by then-President Jacques Chirac.

Another such outcome no longer looks quite as likely.

“You could expect the extreme-right and the left to benefit from the situation in the first instance – the far-right because the issues are its traditional strengths, and the left because it has finally embraced the issue of security,” said Jean-Daniel Levy, head of politics at pollster Harris Interactive.

The coming weeks will give Hollande more opportunities to display statecraft. He has visits to Washington and Moscow planned for next week, billed as an effort to persuade the two biggest global powers to make common cause against Islamic State.

And by invoking the European Union’s mutual assistance clause and declaring that security spending comes before EU budget rules, Hollande offered something to pro-Europeans, sovereigists and leftists alike.

But voters are ultimately likely to judge him on his economic results, and the Paris attacks could weaken a feeble recovery, making it harder to seriously reduce jobless queues.

“Economic concerns will return to the fore” once the threat of terrorism has receded, said Gael Sliman, president of the Oxoda polling institute.


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