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Why François Hollande Won’t Run for Re-Election in 2017

And what to make of his indictment of the xenophobia plaguing Europe’s left.
French President François Hollande.

French President François Hollande.

On Thursday, French President François Hollande announced that he won’t be seeking re-election in next year’s vote, in which far-right National Front candidate Marine Le Pen is expected to receive unprecedented support.

“I have decided not to put myself up as a candidate for the presidential elections,” Hollande said in a broadcast televised nationally and online. Hollande, who was inaugurated in May of 2012, has faced plummeting support in the polls amid chronic unemployment and a series of terrorist attacks that have destabilized the French public and its key tourism sector.

Le Pen’s niece, Marion Marechal Le Pen, a rising star herself within the National Front Party, indicated that Hollande’s announcement was another boost for her aunt, following former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s loss of the center-right Republican ticket.

“The French people are done with the treasons of the Hollande-Sarkozy duo. They won’t prolong their failure with prime ministers,” she tweeted.

Following the election of Donald Trump, who has already populated much of his cabinet with a slew of white supremacists and other controversial figures, the world is now looking to Europe with bated breath.

In March, both France and the Netherlands will vote in their general elections. In France, many immigrants and other ethnic, religious, and sexual minorities fear a Le Pen presidency, arguably bolstered by Trump’s win and the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, who has been fined for inciting hatred against Dutch Muslims, is gunning for prime minister, bolstered by a ban on the burqa voted in there this week. While the ban will in practice only affect about 150 people, it may act as a lightning rod for xenophobes in the next election, Dutch activists say.

Hollande’s speech and subsequent comments Thursday mean that France is out a socialist or ostensibly leftist incumbent in March. But following his speech, Hollande offered a mea culpa that recalled how Europe’s left often works for the right on issues of immigrants.

There is no viable candidate in the French election who doesn’t echo, to some degree, Le Pen’s troubling politics on immigrants.

Shortly after the broadcast, in which Hollande lauded his government for keeping the national debt at bay and a series of labor rights achievements, a particularly telling tweet appeared on Hollande’s account: “I have a single regret, and that was proposing the stripping of citizenship. I thought this could unite us, instead it divided us,” @fhollande tweeted.

Some context: In response to a heightened number of terrorist attacks beginning with the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, Hollande had engaged in a push to amend France’s constitution to allow for the stripping of citizenship from convicted terrorists. The bid would have had little practical effect on the fate of the convicted — practically speaking.

It failed to garner support from French legislators and provoked the January 2016 resignation of the justice minister, who is originally from Guiana and has herself fallen victim to the National Front members’ politics on French people of color.

But it wasn’t until March that Hollande announced he’d drop the initiative.

Hollande’s spokespeople were not immediately available for comment on how the bid had “divided” French society. What remains clear is Hollande’s legacy of anti-immigrant comments and policy proposals.

“No one doubts” that France has a “problem with Islam,” Hollande told reporters last month, adding that too many unwanted immigrants were arriving on France’s shores. “There are too many immigrants coming who shouldn’t be there,” he said.

News of these comments broke when the press was busy reeling from Trump’s many pre-election scandals. What followed Trump’s election were suggestions by the American media that Le Pen — whose Holocaust-denying father founded her party, the National Front — would quite possibly win France’s election.

Would a far-right, deeply antagonistic to media, sweep the world on both sides of the Atlantic?

Where anglophone media was often mistaken when it described Le Pen’s National Front as France’s “anti-immigrant” party is that there is no viable candidate in the French election who doesn’t echo, to some degree, Le Pen’s troubling politics on immigrants.

As Hollande has shown, France’s left has also often engaged in a controversial politic on immigration and French Muslims.

In 2004, former President Jacques Chirac imposed a ban on ostensible signs of religious dress in schools, a measure that rights advocates noted disproportionately affected Muslim women wearing the traditional headscarf or hijab and exacerbated rampant discrimination against French immigrants of Muslim faith.

Like Hollande, Chirac’s was a relatively progressive administration (at least in the area of social welfare) that advanced a discourse on immigrants and Muslims that nourished the current political environment, in which hate is very much on the ballot.

Following the January 2015 terrorist attacks on satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo and a Kosher supermarket, Hollande called to bolster secular teachings in French public schools. The effect of this nebulous call to hearken back to French secularism, immigrant advocates said, was to exacerbate the popular hatred against Muslims—under the guise of French unity.

Would France include Muslim immigrants and their French-born children in this call for unity? Or only unveiled Muslims? None of that had been made clear. With the way political xenophobia in France iterates itself, no one had said explicitly that French immigrants weren’t welcome to the unity project. But with Hollande proposing that citizenship become revokable, the attacks became an immigration issue, an us versus them.

Hollande’s tweet underlines his realization that, following Trump’s election and with the Le Pen camp seeing rapid gains, certain abstract calls to further condemn French Muslims for bouts of terrorism have not done much to unite France against whatever unknown form of government would follow a National Front win — and a government with counterparts in the United States, Britain, and possibly now the Netherlands.