The Frail Unity of France

The French parliament banded together after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but how long can it last?

Anne Christine Poujoulat/AP

Following on the heels of a march that was the single largest demonstration in French history, the usually fractured French government voted to extend its air campaign against ISIS in Iraq in a nearly unanimous vote. The Tuesday vote represents a radical departure for a country that has historically avoided joining the United States’s military efforts in the Middle East.

Prior to the vote, the Assembly observed a minute of silence in honor of those who had been killed in the previous week’s Paris attacks. A spontaneous and heartfelt chorus of the French national anthem, La Marseillaise, which hadn't been heard in the assembly since 1918, immediately followed.

The tally itself put to bed any doubts about the degree to which the French political scene has been affected by last week’s attacks in Paris. In total, 488 of 502 members voted in favor of continuing the airstrikes in Iraq. Such a degree of unanimity on any subject in the Fifth Republic is unprecedented–in a survey of the votes put to the government over the past calendar year, only the vote for the extension of French intervention in Central Africa came anywhere close to achieving the same level of support. “It’s an understatement to say that it’s pretty remarkable,” Philippe Marliere, a professor of French and European politics at University College London, said of the level of consensus. “It’s unheard of—it’s unique. I can’t remember—you know, I’ve been studying French politics for 30 years or so—I just can’t remember any such thing.”

The vote was not unanimous, though. Notably, the entirety of the Left Front, a coalition of communist and leftist deputies, chose to abstain from the vote, citing opposition to any military action not taken under the aegis of the UN Security Council and their doubts about the efficacy of new airstrikes. If anything, the decision to merely abstain, instead of vote against, is a sign of the left’s acquiescence to the national mood. The sole vote against came from little-known politician Jean-Pierre Gorges, who argued that France could not be “the little policeman of the world,” and he could not justify sending the French military into an overseas conflict when security could not be guaranteed at home.

Despite this remarkable show of unity, the national mood is unlikely to last. Violence against Muslims has been on the rise since last week, and the terror attacks will play right into the increasingly attractive rhetoric of the far-right National Front (FN). Prime Minister Manuel Valls has already urged stronger anti-terrorism measures—a move strongly supported by those on the right—and there is every indication that politics as usual will return sooner rather than later.

The direction French politics will take may very well depend on how President Hollande chooses to respond to the attacks in his country. Hollande has already adopted the posture of a wartime president: Earlier today, he announced that he would be sending the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, the flagship of the French navy, to the Indian Ocean to assist in the mission against ISIS. “There is no independence, or liberty, there is no democracy that doesn’t need to be protected by an army,” Hollande told the nation from aboard the aircraft carrier. The French government has also announced a crackdown on hate speech, anti-Semitism, and support for terrorism. (Some 54 people have already been arrested, including comedian Dieudonné.)

Hollande’s resolve in the face of crisis has so far improved his standing in the eyes of the French public, but too strong of a law-and-order approach could alienate his party’s leftward base and exacerbate tensions further between French Muslim and non-Muslim communities. There’s also the matter of the country’s stagnant economy, which can play second fiddle to a war on terror for only so long.