French leader's frank comments in new book cause shockwaves
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PARIS — Normally a man of consensus and caution, President Francois Hollande's frank comments in a new book written by two journalists is causing shockwaves in France.
"A President Shouldn't Say That ..." has exposed the inner workings of Hollande's troubled presidency and his views on Islamic veils, Barack Obama and his private life.
The timing of the book isn't accidental: the French president is weighing whether to run for re-election in six months, despite being the most unpopular leader in his country's modern history.
At least eight books have been published in recent months by journalists who have all met with the president. Most of them hurt Hollande's image, depicting his blunders, improvisations and policy changes as well as confidences on his feelings when he had to make big decision for the country's future.
Hollande is also used to answering journalists' questions himself through text messages — he didn't change his phone number when becoming president — and he often talk to reporters informally on the margins of events, at the risk of sometimes interfering with his own communication service.
But "A President Shouldn't Say That ..." is by far the most controversial book on Hollande to date. The authors, Le Monde investigative journalists Gerard Davet and Fabrice Lhomme, met Hollande for 61 private interviews since the beginning of his term in 2012, reporting often spontaneous and unusually frank discussions.
According to the new book, the president went as far as sharing top secret information, including that he allowed "at least 4" military operations to kill people believed to be responsible for hostage-taking and actions against French interests. He didn't specified where and when.
Hollande also criticized his political rivals as well as other state leaders — including President Barack Obama. In a 2015 interview recounted in the book, he explained he felt abandoned by his U.S. ally in August 2013 when Obama informed him at the last minute he would not agree on an immediate military intervention in Syria in response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad's government.
"I don't know what would have happened if we had carried out strikes ... What I can say is that we did not carry out strikes, and there's Daesh," said Hollande, who used the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group. Hollande suggested that IS might have been weakened by such strikes. Since 2013, extremists with links to IS have repeatedly attacked France, with deadly consequences.
Hollande's comments on Islam and immigration, which tend to be in contradiction with expectations from his Socialist electorate, have prompted particular controversy.
In July 2014 —six months before Islamic extremists attacked satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket — Hollande said "there is a problem with Islam," according to "A President Shouldn't Say That ..." He specified: "It's not Islam itself that poses a problem in the sense of its being a religion that is dangerous in itself, but because it wants to assert itself as a religion inside the French Republic."
He also said, "I think there are too many arrivals, immigrants who shouldn't be there . we teach them to speak French and then another group arrives and we have to start all over again. It never stops . so, at some point it has to stop".
This year, as the question of national identity is one of the key themes of the presidential campaign, Hollande said that "the veiled woman of today will be the Marianne of tomorrow" — in a reference to the symbol of the French Republic.
The quote was widely misinterpreted as meaning that France in the future will be represented by a woman in a Muslim headscarf, prompting outrage from the conservative opposition in a country with a very firm separation between church and state and strictly enforced secularism.
However, Hollande told the books' authors he means the Muslim woman "will free herself from her veil and become a French woman, while remaining religious if she wishes."
Davet told The Associated Press "it's a classic vision of secularism. Hollande is for freedom. He wants people to be free in their lives. In order for everyone to live together peacefully, you need a way for people to live their religion freely. For him that's it."
Hollande even accepted — yet reluctantly — to talk about his private life. Lhomme told the AP "he never called us to say 'tonight we are going to talk about my private life, and you'll have fun.' He hates this. We had to force it."
Hollande confirmed that he refuses to formalize his relationship with his girlfriend, the actress Julie Gayet, while he is president. "I make sure it's not public even if it's known ... It protects her, it protects me. I see her periodically, but not as often as we'd like." He acknowledged Gayet"is suffering from this situation."
He said his breakup with ex-companion Valerie Trierweiler in January 2014 — after his affair with Gayet was disclosed by a gossip magazine — was "the worst personal moment of the term."
The book's authors said for five years they have had the feeling that Hollande wants to run for re-election.
"But there's a big distance between wanting to and being able to," Davet stressed. "If he finds a space, he will run. But if it's about being humiliated, he won't."
Angela Charlton contributed to the report.