The problem is what has happened since. Like Bush and Blair, he doubled down on bellicosity, announcing expanded operations in the Middle East. (Terror attacks pose an intractable dilemma for national leaders: Should they pull back from overseas, and risk looking like they’re cowed, or expand foreign involvement at the risk of overstretching with no strategic benefit?) Unlike Bush and Blair, Hollande started out with a pitifully low approval rating, and unlike them, he has faced a continuing spree of Islamist attacks inside his country’s borders: the January 2015 attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the kosher supermarket, November 2015 Paris attacks, the killing of two married police officers in June 2016, the July 14 attacks in Nice, and now the murder of the priest in St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray.
Hollande saw a bump in approval after the November Paris attacks and again after the Nice massacre. Overall however, his ratings remain at stunning lows. Just 12 percent said he was doing a good job in a poll in early July. Those short bursts of unity aren’t doing much to help him.
What’s going wrong? Perhaps French people, like people the world over, have somewhat unrealistic expectations for how safe the government can keep them. Stopping terrorist attacks, even with a high-quality intelligence system, requires a great deal of luck. Successful attacks aren’t necessarily evidence of negligence or failures, and lack of attacks doesn’t necessarily mean the intelligence and policing are doing a great job. Prime Minister Manuel Valls is calling for forbearance today.
“I understand this feeling of helplessness, but if the French people absorb this truth that it is a long war which will require resilience and resistance, we need to form a block and stay united,” Valls said. “For months we knew there would be new attacks, and everything is still being done to eradicate this terrorism in Syria and Iraq, and of course in France, but there are hundreds of radicalized people.”
But pleas like this start to sound hollow in the case of attackers whom authorities were supposedly already watching. Many of the Paris attackers were known to counterterror officials, just like Adel Kermiche. Although suspects can’t be arrested for Minority Report-style “pre-crime,” the St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray attack seems, from early accounts, to have been the result of a serious oversight.
The pattern is also evidence that if the goal is to foment political instability, terrorism can sometimes be an effective strategy. In the aftermath of attacks, leaders and citizens alike offer an immediate refrain about the importance of unifying in order to deprive the terrorists of what they want. Over time, however, people begin to forget, or grow skeptical of, that admonition, and leaders have time to make errors and undermine themselves. More broadly, leaders tend to eventually become unpopular over time in any case, and governments tend toward political entropy.
Perhaps the simplest explanation for the pattern of unusual unity followed by increasing strife is this: Moments of national crisis bring citizens together in the immediate aftermath, but they also offer a chance to ask: Can’t we do better than this?