François Hollande hasn’t had an easy go of it lately, moving from one disastrous policy initiative to the next, his approval numbers still the worst in the history of French presidential politics. His government, intent on tapping into popular unease over French women wearing full-face Islamic veils, has embraced a ban passed by his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy, and is standing behind the move even after riots this past weekend, determined to draw strength from the broad popular support the ban enjoys.
But the troubled pol may have finally caught something of a break with the news that Gilles Bourdouleix, a previously obscure centrist French mayor angry at the special parking privileges afforded itinerant Roma in the country, allegedly told a group of the often-persecuted people that Hitler had not killed enough of them during World War II.
Hollande’s government is all over this. Interior Minister Manuel Valls has instructed a local prosecutor to investigate Bourdouleix, as any juice the Socialist cabinet can get out of the investigation might serve to demonstrate a modicum of effectiveness that has been sorely lacking. The controversy should also allow Hollande to tack leftwards: after his administration doubled down on the veil ban, that’s a move that makes sense insofar as it can help assuage doubts among his base. And if nothing else, the comments shift the conversation from Hollande’s political woes to a broader discussion of French attitudes toward minority groups, considerably friendlier terrain for Socialist politicians.
Does one flub by a minor politician (whose party would never challenge him at the national level) mean Hollande is saved? Certainly not. And if anyone can blow this opportunity, it’s Hollande. But French conservatives have been showing off their nativism more unabashedly as of late, in part, perhaps, as a response to strong showings in the polls by anti-immigrant leader Marine Le Pen. To the extent that the president can pit himself against these forces, he might finally start to recover some of the luster (yes, luster!) surrounding his successful candidacy a little over a year ago.