PARIS — A few days before the Bastille Day terrorist attack in Nice, President Obama was in Poland for the NATO summit meeting, his mind obviously as much in Dallas as in Warsaw. As I listened to him during his closing news conference, on July 9, I was struck by the sad, tired, almost defeatist tone in the way the leader of the most powerful nation on earth addressed the divisions within American society, after that week’s killings. “This is not who we are,” he insisted, as if trying to convince himself.
By the time he spoke in Dallas three days later, at the memorial service for the police officers shot dead there, President Obama seemed to have regained his confidence. But two days later, on July 14, I was reminded of that brief moment when he let his guard down as I listened to another president, François Hollande, speaking during an interview on French television. Mr. Hollande said that the state of emergency in force since the Nov. 13 terrorist attacks would soon be lifted. But as much as he wanted to sound optimistic, with a presidential election 10 months away, he still looked somber toward the end. “To be president,” he said, “means to have to face death, tragedy.”
That was lunch time on Bastille Day. At 3 the next morning, the French president was back on television, after the carnage that killed 84 people on the enchanting Promenade des Anglais in Nice, to announce that the state of emergency would be extended, for the third time. “France is strong, stronger than the fanatics that want to strike her,” he said. His opponents were quick to ridicule him either for having suggested that the state of emergency would be lifted, or for keeping it in force even though it had proved useless to prevent the attack in Nice.
Defying the odds through the last 18 difficult months — three bloody waves of terrorist attacks and sporadic terrorist incidents, strikes, violent protests against a reform of labor laws, high unemployment and floods — the French have proved surprisingly resilient. The annual survey of the National Consultative Human Rights Commission, carried out in January, even showed tolerance on the rise “despite the posture of some public figures.” While the 2008 economic crisis reduced tolerance, the 2015 attacks produced the opposite effect, “leading to soul-searching and civic mobilization” against extremists, the commission said.
Similarly, the Pew Research Center’s 2016 Global Attitudes Survey found that France (the European Union country with the biggest Muslim and Jewish populations) was the European nation second only to Spain in valuing diversity. The monthlong Euro soccer competition, hosted by France just before the Nice attack, also inspired intense fervor from the French public for its very diverse national team; it was supported throughout by enthusiastic singing of “The Marseillaise,” even after it lost the final game.
Some statistics from the Ministry of Interior, though, show a different picture: The number of racist criminal acts went up 22.4 percent in 2015. The reason for this contradiction, the Human Rights Commission’s experts suggest, is that while individuals who carry out such acts are becoming more radicalized, the society at large is more aware of the dangers of polarization. This attitude shows in an increasing number of civic initiatives, and in the results of the regional election last December: After the far-right National Front did very well in the first round, voters rallied against it and prevented it from winning a single region in the second round.
This was illustrated again immediately after the Bastille Day attack. While citizens of all backgrounds and colors joined to pay their respects to the victims on the Promenade des Anglais, while the florists of Nice united to cover the bloodied avenue with flowers, while the nation was in shock, our politicians bickered over whether the government could have prevented this new atrocity. With the 2017 presidential election flashing big on his radar screen, Mr. Hollande’s rival and predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, did not even wait for the end of three days of national mourning before mounting a ferocious attack on what he saw as the government’s passivity.
The political debate in France has not quite reached the abyss of the campaign for the June 23 referendum on Brexit in Britain yet, nor of Donald J. Trump’s surreal pronouncements, but it is going in that direction. Le Monde’s longtime cartoonist Plantu feels that politicians, media and social networks have stolen his job: “They are now more caricatural than my own caricatures,” he said. In an interview with the Journal du Dimanche on Sunday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls openly worried about a trend that he describes as “the Trumpization of minds.” This, he said, “cannot be our response to the Islamic State.”
When citizens behave more wisely than the men and women who compete to represent them, the time has come to take a hard look at the state of our political systems and its impact on our societies further down the road — particularly when modern democracies are under threat from outside forces that have declared war on them.