Stephane de Sakutin / Reuters 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.

France's Bridge Too Far

François Hollande's Constitutional Crisis

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 , 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.

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