Interior minister Manuel Valls (left) and President François Hollande at the Elysee Palace in Paris on Monday. (AP)
Paris, Jan. 14: President François Hollande of France has regularly been criticised as indecisive, even complacent. But the events of the last few days will go some way towards changing his image, as Hollande has moved swiftly to use the French military in Mali and Somalia after pulling off an important compromise with domestic unions over job creation.
The sudden French military intervention in Mali, which took only half a day to set in motion, together with a bold, if failed, hostage rescue mission in Somalia, have displayed Hollande in a more sombre, decisive light and could represent a turning point for his presidency. The French, like the Americans, judge Presidents on their ability to make tough decisions, and there are few tougher ones than to send young soldiers into battle.
While the future of the Mali intervention is unclear, it has begun well, with French forces hitting two columns of Islamist rebels with jet fighters and attack helicopters and appearing to halt a rebel march south toward the capital, Bamako.
Hollande’s actions have garnered widespread political support in France and abroad, from African countries, the US and Britain, all of which have promised to move more quickly to help Mali recover a vast piece of land lost months ago to the rebels.
Even the failure of the raid in Somalia, in which two French commandos died and the hostage is believed to have been killed by his captors, does not seem to have hurt Hollande. Many of his countrymen do not expect warfare to be risk-free, and France is seized by both worries about the rise of radical Islam and the plight of several French hostages in North Africa believed to be held by religious extremists.
“This is the first occasion Hollande had or seized upon to act decisively, without the sort of waffling that had appeared to be his trademark,” said François Heisbourg, a defence expert at the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris.
“So in that sense, it changes his image instantaneously.”
Throughout his career in the Socialist Party, Hollande has been criticised and even ridiculed for being soft and compromising, likened in the early days to a wobbly custard dessert called “Flanby”. But he has always said that his critics underestimate him, and his victory last May over the energetic incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy, surprised many.
Now Hollande has “demonstrated that he can decide on matters of war and peace, which in the French system, as in the US, is very important,” Heisbourg said.
“Until you prove that, you haven’t proved much,” he said, comparing the impact of Hollande’s actions with that of President Obama’s decision to approve the raid on Osama bin Laden.
A cartoon on Saturday in the centrist newspaper Le Parisien showed Hollande as commander in chief, with a bystander saying, “Must admit that sometimes he surprises.”
Yesterday, Bruno Jeudy, an editor at the newspaper Le Journal du Dimanche, wrote: “Finally President! Finished, the hesitant and nonchalant François Hollande of the first months of his mandate.” Like many, Jeudy noted that once begun, the operation in Mali will be long and difficult.