With Mali, ‘soft’ Hollande shifts image
ONTO THE FRONT LINE: Throughout his career in the Socialist Party, Mr. Hollande has been criticised and even ridiculed for being compromising, but he has always said that his critics underestimate him. Here the President is delivering the New Year speech at the Elysee Palace in Paris. | AP

President François Hollande of France has regularly been criticised as indecisive, even complacent. But the events of the last few days will go some way toward changing his image, as Mr. Hollande has moved swiftly to use the French military in Mali and Somalia after pulling off an important compromise with domestic unions over job creation.

The sudden French military intervention in Mali, which took only half a day to set in motion, together with a bold, if failed, hostage rescue mission in Somalia, have displayed Mr. Hollande in a more sombre, decisive light that could represent a turning point for his presidency. The French, like the Americans, judge presidents on their ability to make tough decisions, and there are few tougher ones than to send young soldiers into battle.

Widespread support

While the future of the Mali intervention is unclear, it has begun well, with French forces hitting two columns of Islamist rebels with jet fighters and attack helicopters and appearing to halt a rebel march south toward the capital, Bamako. Mr. Hollande’s actions have garnered widespread political support in France and abroad, from African countries, the United States and Britain, all of which have promised to move more quickly to help Mali recover a vast piece of land lost months ago to the rebels.

Even the failure of the raid in Somalia, in which two French commandos died and the hostage is believed to have been killed by his captors, does not seem to have hurt Mr. Hollande. Many of his countrymen do not expect warfare to be risk-free, and France is seized by both worries about the rise of radical Islam and the plight of several French hostages in North Africa believed to be held by religious extremists. “This is the first occasion Hollande had or seized upon to act decisively, without the sort of waffling that had appeared to be his trademark,” said François Heisbourg, a defence expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “So in that sense, it changes his image instantaneously.”

Throughout his career in the Socialist Party, Mr. Hollande has been criticised and even ridiculed for being soft and compromising, likened in the early days to a wobbly custard dessert called “Flanby.” But he has always said that his critics underestimate him, and his victory last May over the energetic incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, surprised many.

Now Mr. Hollande has “demonstrated that he can decide on matters of war and peace, which in the French system, as in the U.S., is very important,” Mr. Heisbourg said.

Obama-like moment

“Until you prove that, you haven’t proved much,” he said, comparing the impact of Mr. Hollande’s actions with that of President Obama’s decision to approve the raid on Osama bin Laden.

A cartoon on Saturday in the centrist newspaper Le Parisien showed Mr. Hollande as commander in chief, with a bystander saying, “Must admit that sometimes he surprises.”

On Sunday, Bruno Jeudy, an editor at the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, wrote: “Finally President! Finished, the hesitant and nonchalant François Hollande of the first months of his mandate.” Like many, Mr. Jeudy noted that once begun, the operation in Mali — to help dismantle a safe haven for radicals linked to terrorist groups — will be long and difficult. (In the same newspaper, Dominique de Villepin, a former Foreign Minister, warned that the operation in Mali was likely to fail because it had too many ambitious goals.)

“Wars are rarely popular,” Mr. Jeudy said. “But by putting on the uniform of a war leader, he rose to the rank of his predecessors.” He also lowered the domestic pressure on him to back off his proposal to legalise same-sex marriage, turning the national conversation more toward foreign policy.

Agreement with unions

Mr. Hollande, whose Socialist Party and its allies control the legislature, has vowed to push through the bill, saying that policy will not be made in the streets.

But he has refused to allow some of his own legislators to attach a provision to allow state financing for procreation assistance to same-sex women couples. In both instances, Mr. Hollande has again shown his ability to make a decision and keep it, as well as working to manage his own party.

Similarly, after months of negotiations, Mr. Hollande and his government were able to announce late on Friday an agreement between entrepreneurs and trade unions over how to liberalise the labour market, to make it easier to hire young people, who are facing unemployment levels nearing 25 per cent.

While the details are vague, and the impact on unemployment may not be big, Mr. Hollande has managed to get some concessions from France’s famously strong unions without a strike. That was especially important for Mr. Hollande, given the ridicule produced by the actor Gérard Depardieu’s feud with the government over high taxes favoured by the Socialists and a ruling that a 75 per cent tax rate on the rich was unconstitutional.

For Mr. Hollande to have succeeded with the unions and corporate leaders was vital. Failure would have been seen as disastrous for his ability to carry the country, however incrementally, toward improved competitiveness and lower budget deficits.

There was even praise from a sharp critic, the business leader Laurence Parisot. The deal “will change life for businesses in France,” she said.

“This marks the advent of a culture of compromise after decades of a philosophy of social antagonism,” she said.

The complications of war are many, but for now, joked Mr. Heisbourg, the defence expert, it seems like “springtime in Holland,” a play on the President’s name. The French “don’t know yet if he’s really competent,” he said.

“But he shows little sign of stress or unease, and he certainly looks relaxed.” (Arthur Touchot contributed reporting.)

New York Times News Service

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