Published January 14, 2013
PARIS – Bombing militants in Mali may be the most popular thing Francois Hollande has done as France's president.
The bespectacled and self-described "normal" man who was once lampooned as resembling flimsy yellow custard, is now flexing France's military muscle against al-Qaida-linked Islamist extremists who he believes pose a threat to northwest Africa, France and Europe. And in doing so, he has nearly united the French political class.
"His hand didn't tremble," Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said of Hollande's order Friday for French troops to fight the insurgents blamed for kidnapping, drug-running and forcing oppressive rules on the people of Mali, a former French colony. "The president made his decision knowing the risks it implies."
Nearly simultaneously, across Africa's midsection, French commandos led a raid in Somalia in a failed effort to free a comrade held hostage there for 3-1/2 years. Officials said 17 Islamists and two commandos died and that they believe the hostage was killed. Hollande is said to have given the green light for that high-risk mission last month.
Both the Mali mission, which entered a fourth day Monday with continued French air strikes, and the Somalia raid bared an unfamiliar side of the French leader, who took power eight months ago and had seen his popularity slide.
For all his qualities, few French fancy Hollande as a warmonger. As Interior Minister Manuel Valls, quoted in Le Monde newspaper, said of his boss: "It's in exceptional and difficult times that a statesman emerges."
The French appear to welcome this new, hard Hollande in the guise of terrorism-fighter-in-chief. But it's not clear whether he can revive his own popularity in the long-term.
"It's too early to draw conclusions about the benefits for Francois Hollande's image. We need to wait and see how the situation in Mali evolves," said Ifop agency pollster Frederic Daby. "But what we know is that Francois Hollande is benefiting from a movement of national unity — a sacred union because French interests are at stake."
An Ifop poll released Monday found that 63 percent of respondents in France supported the intervention in Mali. The poll of 1,021 adults was taken this weekend; the margin of error was about 3 percentage points.
The head of the conservative opposition, Jean-Francois Cope, said France's air strikes in Mali had "complete international legitimacy," and even far-right leader Marine Le Pen called the intervention "legitimate."
Hollande's order for the Mali operation is particularly perilous because seven French hostages are in the hands of the same al-Qaida-linked jihadist groups that France's troops are fighting in vast northern Mali.
Hollande's poll numbers have been on a steady slide ever since he handily beat conservative incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy in May's presidential election, becoming only the second Socialist head of state in France in more than 50 years.
He has been assailed for inconsistent handling of the economy. His backpedaling on campaign promises — like one to freeze fuel prices — or watering down others has frustrated many voters. And his romantic partner Valerie Trierweiler caused him no small embarrassment in June by tweeting a comment that was widely read as a nasty swipe against his ex-partner.
Hollande's headaches as president have mainly been domestic, including a jobless rate around 10 percent, few signs of economic rebound and a full-bodied debate on his plan to legalize gay marriage and thus allow same-sex couples to adopt and conceive children. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people marched in protest against that idea.
Critics say Hollande cherry-picked the easiest and most politically palatable reforms proposed in a November report that he commissioned on ways to rejuvenate competitiveness in France's moribund economy — backing down from other ideas amid howls from labor groups that are a pillar of his leftist coalition.
Magazine covers have recently portrayed him under headlines such as "Hollande: The Surrender" and "The Rejection."
Hollande also took office vowing to end a policy of "Francafrique," a paternalistic French buzzword for a cushy and corrupt relationship between political and economic elites in France and its former African colonies
Those hopes all but vanished on Friday — even if Hollande insists he still wants Mali and its African neighbors to take command of counterterrorism efforts in the region in the future.
Internationally, until now, Hollande's most significant decision was pulling French combat troops out of Afghanistan last month — far ahead of the 2014 timetable of the United States and France's other NATO allies.
Until last week, Hollande had been talking tough both about the terror threat in Mali and against President Bashar Assad's repression in Syria's civil war, but hadn't taken any major concrete action. He'd repeatedly said that France would back up African troops in Mali, but not send troops to fight.
As with some other countries, international issues tend to have less impact on the French president's image than do pocketbook concerns such as jobs.
Sarkozy, a brash, hard-nosed former interior minister, put France in a leading role along with Britain and the United States in NATO's air campaign in Libya that helped topple dictator Moammar Gadhafi last year. But he got little lift in the polls and lost the presidency to Hollande.
Still, Hollande could benefit from countering public expectations about him. Unlike tough-guy Sarkozy, he's better-known for glad-handing crowds than — as he did this weekend — looking sternly into TV cameras to defend risky military action and saying France won't give in to terrorists' "blackmail".