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France Must Seize the Moment

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Carpe diem, François.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    France’s socialist government faces the twin threats of radicalism and the increasingly powerful right-wing National Front.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Four million French people took part in street demonstrations after the Paris attacks.
    • There are growing calls for improved security in France and initiatives to tackle radicalism.
    • The National Front has so far failed to capitalize on the attacks.
  • Audio

    Audio

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A new metaphor has taken hold in France: “The Spirit of January 11.”

It refers to the national unity expressed in the mass demonstrations held on that day against the Paris terror attacks, and the new, more optimistic feeling in the country. President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls are benefiting as an overwhelming majority of citizens acknowledge that they showed themselves to be strong political leaders during and after the horrfic events.

Both politicians realize that this is a temporary situation, but the embrace of national unity offers an opportunity to speed up many things that have long seemed at an impasse. The four million people who took to the streets were, in effect, demanding changes in France.

They stood up for liberty, equality and fraternity. They now expect politicians to accept their responsibility and ensure this slogan becomes more than words and is used as a philosophy guiding their actions.

It’s not yet clear whether the government will set the pace expected of it, but if they don’t the National Front, the deeply conservative nationalist party that has been largely forgotten about in the past ten days, will rise again.

Security is the first concern. The French media is still holding back, largely out of tact, but it’s abundantly clear security services failed badly. The current minister of the interior, his predecessor and the right-wing government of former president Nicolas Sarkozy were all unable to get a grip on the most dangerous assailants, who all grew up in France.

Weaknesses and mistakes must be exposed, even if the temptation on both right and left is to reach a silent understanding and not to poke too deeply into the past.

It is essential to find a way to improve security. Much is under discussion including more stringent flight passenger lists, stricter controls on the Internet, special prisons for jihadists and terrorists and limiting the freedom of movement of suspected terrorists. With the impact of the attack so fresh, these decisions could be made quickly.

It will be fascinating to watch how closely politicians deal with the more basic question raised by the attacks, i.e. how could the republic suddenly give birth to such monsters?

Mr. Hollande and Mr. Valls diverge somewhat on this point. Mr. Valls denounced students who expressed understanding, or even sympathy, for the attackers. In a highly emotional speech in parliament, he called for the staunch defense of the “values of the republic.”

Now that more room for maneuver exists, it is time for the socialist government to demonstrate more agility.

Schools are not acting vigorously enough and secularism must be more strongly supported, he declared, because it was the actual target of the attacks. For him, there is only one answer: “Secularism, Secularism, Secularism.”

Mr. Hollande, in contrast, questions the causes of the attacks. “Radical Islam fed itself with all the contradictions, influences, poverty, inequalities and long unresolved conflicts,” he said.

In fact, it’s little help to Muslim youths wasting away in dismal suburbs with little prospect of a job to hear the prime minister simply hammer them with the word secularism. It may sound purposeful and energetic, but in the end it will still amount to sitting out the problem. That’s precisely not what the French people want.

Frustration over government inactivity is one reason for the surging popularity of the National Front before the attacks. The party’s decision to stand on the sidelines during the massive demonstrations offers a major opportunity for more serious parties, but that advantage will not last for ever.

Now that more room for maneuver exists and the curbing power of the conservative leftwing has lessened, it’s time for the socialist government to demonstrate more agility.

It is possible that reforms aimed at improving equal opportunity to ease social advancement will move forward, renewing hope for the have-nots after the terrible disappointment of the 2012 election. In the current political climate, the center and parts of the right could be won over.

The French cling to their liberty, much more than to this or that pension formula. They seek concrete answers. If the government responds, much is possible. If it fumbles the opportunity, it will lose the trust of the French people.

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To contact the author: hanke@handelsblatt.com

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