French president François Hollande’s speech to the Congress at Versailles rode a wave of political solidarity, most politicians refraining from trying to make political profit off the terror attacks and “standing united against a common enemy”… with the notable exception of Hollande himself. He shamelessly used the situation to undermine the political threat from the Right and advance the implementation of an all-out police state. The satirical _Canard Enchainé_ called him “the General of [the] Division.”
Hollande announced that France’s borders were being closed and that he would ask for an extension of the emergency powers he has put in place, which can be maintained for a maximum 12 days without a legislative vote to extend them. (Today, as I write, all but a handful of deputies voted to grant an extension of three months.) Hollande further said that he would seek an amendment to the law governing the application of emergency powers allowing the executive to keep them in place longer without consulting the legislature. He said that “administrative” (meaning executive) searches and seizures will be able to be made with no court order. He promised to hire 5,000 new police and gendarmes in the next two years. Long-planned budget cuts designed to lower the costs of France’s armed forces have been frozen through 2019. He promised that he would seek an amendment to the constitution extending the conditions under which he can declare a state of siege – equivalent to full martial law. Constitutionalization would put the measure out of the reach of challenges from European human-rights legislation and France’s own Conseil Constitutionnel, which could challenge a law.
All of these legal and constitutional extensions of powers, Hollande suggested, are needed to cope with a “new context” which “the Republic will evolve” to face – presumably meaning a context in which young French men and women are recruited and trained as assassins and suicide bombers… by jihadist militias whom France itself and its allies have armed and trained for use as proxy armies against Assad.
Hollande clearly relishes the opportunity to play the strongman, to talk tough while undercutting his political adversaries. At one point he even made a brief head-wagging gesture that was astonishingly reminiscent of Mussolini. Or possibly Nicolas Sarkozy. Was it calculated, or spontaneous? Is he being coached by a consultant, the way the old George Bush was after his handlers noticed that a few of his gestures were just a touch too graceful? Is he simply aping his likely future adversary Sarkozy, who parlayed his stint as Interior (police) minister into a presidential term by baiting immigrants and ghetto youth, even stooping so low as to arrest suspected undocumented parents in a pre-dawn raid as they prepared their children for the first day of elementary school? Or, inside the chubby little bookkeeper, is there a swaggering Duce bent on taking the stage? And is a full-scale police state part of a long-standing plan to further tighten the grip of the neoliberal matrix?
In any case, Hollande is now “hunting on Sarkozy’s lands” as the French say. Beyond his militaristic posturing, he deliberately drew a connection between terrorism and the young people in France’s pressure-cooker suburban housing projects: “They move from delinquency to terrorism”. He promised that he would see to it that young offenders, born in France and sometimes third-generation immigrants, have their French nationality stripped from them. Playing on the fears of working-class citizens by singling out ghetto youths as being part of a foreign population the Republic is harboring in its bosom is one of the techniques Sarkozy had used to co-opt the extreme-Right Front National on his way to the presidency. Now Hollande – whose party is a direct inheritor of the Second International – is using the horror of November 13th as cover for doing exactly the same.
And the media are falling in line, while praising Hollande’s stern posturing and hypocritical calls for unity. The term “Islamofascism” is again being bandied about. A female journalist on the France-24 news network, commenting on the reports that a woman terrorist had blown herself up during the police attack in St-Denis Wednesday morning, said that “a page has been turned” and that “no woman wearing the Islamic veil can ever be trusted again”. Are women who wear blouson-style jackets and coats now suspect too? Or only if they are of Middle-Eastern complexion? Are all pregnant women now potential suicide bombers? Or only those who don’t have blond hair and/or smoke cigarettes?
The relatively short-term gains Hollande will take to the bank may or may not keep their value on the volatile market of politics. But the harm he is doing to the liberty that is supposedly one of France’s pillar values won’t easily be undone. And he chooses to do it rather than face the hypocrisy and the contradictions of France’s – and its allies’ – policies in the world in general and the Middle East in particular.