The Fragile Unity of a Nation Under Attack

With each new terrorist incident in France, the solidarity that accompanied previous ones becomes harder to sustain.

French soldiers stand guard at the command center for France's anti-terror operations on the outskirts of Paris. (Ian Langsdon / AP)

Sometimes what it takes to bring a country together is one horrific terror attack. But bringing a country together and keeping it together are two very different things.

France is reeling from yet another terror attack Tuesday—this time the horrific murder of an 85-year-old Catholic priest, claimed by ISIS, and committed just as mass was ending at a church in St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a town in Normandy. The attack is all the more appalling because, according to Le Monde, one of the suspected attackers, Adel Kermiche, was already under electronic surveillance after attempting to reach Syria, twice.

Already, the attack has brought fresh scrutiny for the deeply unpopular President Francois Hollande. The French leader has presided over some of the most sweepingly emotional moments in recent French history, triumphantly and defiantly leading a multinational, multifaith parade after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January and again winning praise for his leadership after November attacks in Paris. Yet he is now president of a divided, fractious nation, one that doesn’t trust his leadership and is slumping toward the semi-fascism of the National Front. Hollande is the latest leader to see a terror attack bring a rattled nation together in intense unity, only to have that brief feeling of togetherness dissolve in the aftermath, whether due to unrealistic expectations from the public, botched policy by the government, or some combination of these and other factors.

The classic example is President George W. Bush. Though Bush had been elected by the skin of his teeth, the September 11 attacks less than a year into his term produced an outpouring of cohesion, patriotism, and resilience that turned Bush into a beloved figure stateside, and the United States earned the world’s sympathy. But over the following few years, Bush gradually frittered that away. The biggest error, of course, was the war in Iraq, which quickly proved to be ill-conceived, ill-executed, and destabilizing for the region. There were other steps, though, including the creation of a large security state, from the Patriot Act to questionably legal wiretaps to dubiously constitutional detention of suspects. Despite the (ahistorical) protestations of Bush loyalists that “he kept us safe,” Americans began to lose faith in his administration. Bush was able to win reelection in the hard-fought 2004 campaign, but the country was deeply polarized, and has remained that way. By 2006, Bush was a pariah; by the presidential elections of 2008, he mostly avoided the campaign trail, lest he hurt GOP nominee John McCain. It didn’t help, and McCain lost.

Bush’s arc, from massive popularity to historic disapproval, took several years, but then the United States always does things on a large scale. In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair compressed the timeline after the July 2005 London bombings, which killed 52. Blair’s approval ratings had fallen, in part due to his eagerness to join the American attack on Iraq, but the 2005 attacks rallied the country around him, and his popularity spiked—for what would turn out to be the last time in his long tenure. Blair, like Bush, overreached in his response, proposing sweeping new terrorism laws. “Let no one be in doubt,” he said. “The rules of the game have changed.” But Parliament balked, voting them down—his first defeat in the Commons. Within a year, he was forced to step down by his own party in favor of Gordon Brown.

The pattern isn’t universal. For example, Spain’s Partido Popular was unceremoniously defeated in elections just three days after the bloody 2004 attacks at Madrid’s Atocha Station. But it makes intuitive sense that in times of fear, citizens would rally around their leaders. It also makes some intuitive sense that leaders, being fallible, would often bobble and drop that precious resource.

Hollande must feel a bit like he’s trapped in a Groundhog Day-style look: attack, popularity, decline. Before the January 2015 attacks on the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, Hollande’s favorability was already ailing. But those attacks did for France and for its president something like what 9/11 did for Bush, delivering unity at home and sympathy abroad. His response was widely praised, and his approval rating doubled.

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?