French President Francois Hollande talks about the situation in Mali on Saturday at the presidential palace in Paris. Backed by French air power, Malian troops Friday unleashed an offensive against Islamist rebels.
French President Francois Hollande talks about the situation in Mali on Saturday at the presidential palace in Paris. Backed by French air power, Malian troops Friday unleashed an offensive against Islamist rebels. Lionel Bonaventure/AP
Since last weekend, France has been fighting Islamist radicals across Africa. In the west, it's sending troops to help overthrow rebels in its former colony, Mali; in the east, French special forces staged an unsuccessful but bold operation to free a French hostage in Somalia. While the fighting is far from over, French President Francois Hollande's show of force is producing some collateral benefits for him back home.
French troops gather in a hangar at Mali's Bamako airport. French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign against armed Islamist extremists Tuesday.
French troops gather in a hangar at Mali's Bamako airport. French forces led an all-night aerial bombing campaign against armed Islamist extremists Tuesday. Jerome Delay/AP
On the campaign trail last spring, Hollande's mild manner was appreciated after years of President Nicolas Sarkozy's abrasive and hyperactive style. But since Hollande's election, it has gotten him nowhere. He has been called indecisive and soft, and not quite up to being president. His style has earned him the nickname "Flanby," after a wobbly gelatin dessert.
But that began to change Friday, when Hollande transformed himself into commander in chief — announcing on national television that he was sending troops to Mali.
The decision to go into Mali was sudden, and public opinion had not been primed, but there has been an immediate effect, says Francois Heisbourg of the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research.
"Francois Hollande's image has changed because the president in France is the commander in chief, and therefore if he uses force in a decisive ... manner, that has immediate resonance," Heisbourg says.
"Finally President!" screamed one headline; "Leading the War!" yelled another. Of course, it hasn't been enough to completely undo his old image. In a popular, satirical marionette show on television called Les Guignols, Hollande is still subservient to his partner, Valerie Twierweiler. In a skit Monday night, she gives the military briefing while he looks on meekly. "Don't interrupt me!" she tells him.
Same-Sex Marriage, A Tax On The Wealthy, Labor Strife
Hollande has been less impressive with regards to a war being fought on the domestic front — over same-sex marriage. Massive protests last weekend highlighted the fact that Hollande didn't sufficiently prepare the ground for his campaign promise to legalize same-sex marriage.
Before that, another campaign pledge that went awry was Hollande's 75 percent tax on the superwealthy. Film star Gerard Depardieu ridiculed the tax, and a constitutional council annulled it.
A boy holds a poster reading "Do not touch the civil marriage" during a demonstration in Paris on Sunday as thousands of protesters mobilized against the French president's plan to legalize gay marriage.
A boy holds a poster reading "Do not touch the civil marriage" during a demonstration in Paris on Sunday as thousands of protesters mobilized against the French president's plan to legalize gay marriage. Thibault Camus/AP
But Hollande's behind-the-scenes, incremental style has produced some unexpected results in other areas. After years of strikes and clashes between French unions and employers, the president persuaded them to sit down and work out a deal.
Hollande's approval rating has shot up virtually overnight, from around 40 percent to 63 percent. Shoppers in one Paris grocery store are certainly impressed.
"He really seems to be leading the action now and not in the background," says Stephane Crendal. "The Mali intervention reaffirmed him as head of state. It's a lot more popular than his gay marriage bill."
Analyst Heisbourg says Mali, for Hollande, is a bit like the bin Laden raid was for President Obama.
"A president who until now had been seen as being hesitant, sort of academic in his approach to political issues is able, from literally one day to the next, to decide a high-risk, quite substantial military commitment," Heisbourg says.
Hollande said Tuesday that he plans to increase the number of French troops on the ground in Mali threefold in the coming weeks.