Francois Hollande delivers a speech on constitutional reform and the fight against terrorism at the end of the weekly cabinet meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, March 2016.
Stephane de Sakutin / Reuters

On March 30, 2016, French President François Hollande withdrew a package of constitutional amendments that his government had portrayed as a centerpiece of a tough new approach to terrorism. The amendments were meant to unite the country after the devastating attacks in Paris and enhance Hollande’s standing ahead of the national elections in 2017. In the end, however, they did quite the opposite.

Hollande first announced the proposed amendments on November 16, 2015, in a speech before a joint session of the French National Assembly and Senate in the Palace of Versailles. “France is at war,” he declared. “I shall marshal the full strength of the state to defend the safety of its people.” Hollande, perhaps the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic, had what seemed like an opportunity to mobilize the public behind his leadership. The following day, an Odoxa survey published in Le Parisien indicated that 84 percent of respondents were prepared to accept limits on liberty to combat terrorism, including 87 percent of self-identified supporters of Hollande’s Socialist Party. Seventy-three percent of respondents agreed that Hollande was in control of the problem. Huge majorities also supported military action.

In his speech, Hollande took advantage of such public sentiment to propose a buildup of security forces and an increase in defense spending. He had made similar commitments after the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, the last time that his popularity had spiked. This time, however, he added two new proposals that required amending France’s constitution. The first would have allowed the government to declare a state of emergency. The second would have deprived dual citizens of their French citizenship if they were convicted of a terrorist offense, even if they were born in France. If the increase in defense spending was uncontroversial, the proposed amendments caused furor from the outset, particularly within the left-wing governing majority.

In the end, Hollande achieved the opposite of what he had intended.

Critics argued that the state-of-emergency amendment was superfluous. France had already declared a state of emergency under legislation passed just after the terrorist attacks in November. The Council of State and the Constitutional Council had upheld the legislation in December and then extended it for three additional months in February. The emergency legislation gave the police draconian powers to impose house arrest, conduct warrantless searches, detain terrorist suspects during the period of the emergency, ban gatherings, and censor the press. The right had proposed enshrining in the constitution the power to declare a state of emergency in 2007, and now Hollande, seeking to ward off legal challenges to his response to the attacks, supported it too. But the left, in particular his own Socialist majority, did not fall in line. More than one-third of the left majority voted against the amendments.

French National Assembly Speaker Claude Bartolone (C) arrives to attend the start of a parliament debate on the constitutional reform bill at the National Assembly in Paris, February 2016.
French National Assembly Speaker Claude Bartolone (C) arrives to attend the start of a parliament debate on the constitutional reform bill at the National Assembly in Paris, February 2016.
Charles Platiau / Reuters

The denaturalization proposal was far more controversial, primarily because it harked back to the darkest days of Vichy France, when 15,000 naturalized French citizens were denaturalized, including 6,000 Jews. The Vichy government also passed legislation that defined different categories of citizens by birth, with different rights and protections. Not surprisingly, the denaturalization proposal in 2015 divided the government and the Socialist Party: Christiane Taubira, the minister of justice, resigned just before the proposal reached parliament. In response, representatives in the National Assembly tweaked the law to eliminate all references to dual nationality. The new proposal read, “Laws shall establish nationality, including the conditions under which a person can be deprived of French nationality, or the rights attached to it, when he/she is found guilty of a crime that poses a serious danger to the life of the nation.” This was a poor solution. Critics of the first formulation of the law said it created two classes of citizens, those with dual nationality and those without. But the second formulation threatened to challenge the core provision of the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness: “A Contracting State shall not deprive a person of its nationality if such deprivation would render him stateless.”

The parliamentary debate over the amendments created far more conflict than consensus, rapidly eroding any public support the amendments may have originally had. In addition, at least among political elites, there seemed to be a growing sense that the changes would do little to aid the war against terrorism. And the energy Hollande devoted to getting these amendments through parliament rapidly eroded the political capital he had enjoyed at the end of November.

Although amending the constitution is far easier in France than in the United States, it still requires that both houses of parliament pass an identical version of each amendment by majority vote. It also requires a three-fifths majority by a joint session of both houses voting together. These requirements present considerable problems, especially when a different party controls each house, as is now the case.

Nevertheless, at the beginning of February, the National Assembly passed both amendments. The emergency powers proposal passed easily, but less than a quarter of the members voted on it. Sixty percent of the members voted on the nationality amendment, and the vote was much closer. The final vote on both amendments was better attended, and they passed with 60 percent support. All of the major party groups, except for the far left, supported the legislation, but each group was deeply divided, with important party leaders on each side.

The real problems began when the proposals reached the Senate, where the debate focused on the denaturalization amendment. The Assembly had eliminated the language of dual nationality, but the Senate could not accept that solution because it left open the possibility of statelessness. When the Senate, on March 17, adopted a version of the denaturalization amendment that was similar to the original version rejected by the Assembly, it became clear that no agreement would possible, prompting Hollande to withdraw the proposals in a humiliating televised address. “I have decided … to terminate the constitutional debate,” he said.

The results of a vote on the constitutional reform bill at the National Assembly in Paris, February 2016.
The results of a vote on the constitutional reform bill at the National Assembly in Paris, February 2016.
Charles Platiau / Reuters

In the end, Hollande achieved the opposite of what he had intended. He eroded his popularity and divided both the governing majority and the opposition. And in proposing amendments that dominated four months of parliamentary debate, he prevented his government from considering other proposals that might have been far more effective in dealing with the evolving war on terror in France and Europe.

Hollande prevented his government from considering proposals that might have been more effective in the evolving war on terror.

On the security front, France faces two main problems. First, French security is dependent on broader and more intense cooperation with its European neighbors and beyond. Although the trappings and structures of information-sharing have existed for years, the actual sharing of information that would help secure the external border of Europe has been fragmentary. There is still no entry or exit system for third country nationals who enter the EU, and the system for sharing visa information remains unfinished. Second, terrorists in France and Europe are increasingly homegrown, not easily separated from other citizens through emergency legislation.

In this context, the solutions Hollande proposed were short-term and symbolic rather than thorough and long-lasting. The political consequences, however, will likely be severe. The deep divisions within the Socialist Party and the left coalition may cost Hollande the election and perhaps even the Socialist nomination. Moreover, the divided Socialist Party will have a difficult time holding on to its majority, even against an embattled center-right that is under siege from the extreme-right National Front. The only real winner is the National Front and its leader and presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen, whose priorities are now at the top of the political agenda.