TIME Syria

Marriage and Martyrdom: How ISIS is Winning Women

Severine Ali Mehenni holds pictures of her daughter Sahra dressed in a traditional Islamic robe, at her home in Lezignan Corbieres, France, Oct. 2, 2014.
Severine Ali Mehenni holds pictures of her daughter Sahra dressed in a traditional Islamic robe, at her home in Lezignan Corbieres, France, Oct. 2, 2014. Fred Scheiber—AP

At least 300 women have tried to join Isis from Europe and the U.S.

Last March 11, was a normal Thursday morning for the Ali Mehenni family, or so Kamel Ali Mehenni thought when he dropped off his 17-year-old daughter Sahra at the train station on her way to school. It was only that evening, when Sahra failed to meet her father at the station, that it became clear something was amiss. Even then the family thought the quiet, plump-cheeked teenager with a soft smile might have missed her train or gone out with friends.

Sahra, from Lézignan-Corbières in a wine-producing region of southern France, never went to school that day. Instead, she took a train to a nearby airport and flew alone to Turkey— to join ISIS jihadists on the warfront in Syria.

How a quiet young French woman from a mixed Muslim-Catholic family with five children was convinced to exchange her home in the south of France to one in the north of Syria, remains a mystery to her family and friends, even eight months later. “It is a catastrophe,” says her brother Jonathan, 22, sitting in his apartment in Margny-lès-Compiègne, an hour north of Paris, as he reads the private messages Sahra has written from Syria to her “beloved” sibling. “There is not a day that goes by when my parents don’t cry ‘Sahra, Sahra,’” he says. “They watch the news from Syria and it is so surreal.”

Yet Sahra’s story is hardly unique. ISIS has persuaded hundreds of young Western women to travel to Syria. That marks its battle as distinctly different from al-Qaeda’s campaigns of the last decade, and demonstrates that ISIS seeks to colonize the areas it has conquered with its soldiers, civil servants and women to breed a new generation of fighters.

In al-Qaeda’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, young armed men holed up on the battlefield far from their families. But in Syria ISIS aims to install a purist Islamic state—an entire new country—as its name denotes. And so ISIS fighters are looking to build lives that are far broader than fighting the war, ones in which they can come home after a day’s battle to a loving wife and children, and home-cooked meals. As such, recruiting women into ISIS is not simply about expanding the organization. It is the essential building block of a future society. ISIS members have said their women do not fight, but are there to help build the new society. “The strategy is geared to building a community and bringing families in so they have the infrastructure to set up a society,” says Melanie Smith, research associate at the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at Kings College London, who has tracked dozens of British women who have joined ISIS. “They are the support system.”

A new ISIS-affiliated online group named “Al-Zawra’a Foundation” launched last month, advising Western women not only to watch training videos on handling weapons, but also to have their mothers teach them recipes and tailoring skills so they can cook for ISIS fighters and sew their combat uniforms. “May Allah be pleased with the female companion,” says the Al-Zawra’a’s recruiting pitch, describing women’s lives in ISIS as teaching others first aid, sewing and cooking, “until Allah chooses you for martyrdom.”

The female recruits come from all over the world—including the U.S. Last month German police arrested three teenage girls from Denver, Colorado at Frankfurt Airport, 5,000 miles from home, making their way to Syria to join ISIS. German officials extradited the high-schoolers back home. A fourth Denver woman, Shannon Conley, 19, was arrested last April as she was about board a flight from that city on her way to joining ISIS. Conley was convicted in September of aiding a terrorist organization and faces a possible five-year jail term at her sentencing in January.

Anti-terrorism officials in Europe estimate about 300 Western women have joined jihadist groups in Syria, about one-third from France. That might be because the largest number of foreign fighters in ISIS are believed to come from French-speaking Tunisia, many of them hardline militants who were freed from prisons after the Jasmine Revolution drove out the country’s secular dictator in January 2011. Those men moved on to Syria and from there have sought French-speaking wives.

In addition, French officials estimate about 1,000 French men have joined the Syrian jihad since 2011 of which about 375 are currently there. On Monday they identified one of them in the video that included the severed head of U.S. aid worker Peter Kassig: Maxime Hauchard, 22, a small-town convert to Islam. Last week another convert, Flavien Moreau, was sentenced to seven years for having briefly traveled to Syria to join ISIS, before returning to France.

Within weeks of fleeing her home, Sahra called her brother Jonathan to tell him she had married a Tunisian fighter, deepening the family’s sense that she had slipped into a dark world far beyond their reach.

Sahra, by contrast, seems to have no thought of coming home. Still, in her messages to Jonathan, Sahra seems anxious for her parents’ approval, exposing herself as a vulnerable teenager, albeit in the midst of a war. “I miss you a lot, tell daddy and mommy I love them strongly, strongly,” she wrote soon after arriving in Syria. “They mustn’t worry about me, especially mom, I know the last time I heard her voice she was trembling. The choice I made was considered, I didn’t leave blindly. I love you a lot, mes amours.

But as the months have gone by, Sahra’s messages have begun to feel hollow to Jonathan. “It’s always the same: I’m eating okay, I’m well,” he says angrily. To the family Sahra’s life is abhorrant. Sahra’s mother is a French-born Catholic who married an Algerian-born Muslim. “For her we are non-believers,” Jonathan says. “For us, she is. It is two religions, in opposition to each other. For us, this is not Islam,” he says, referring to the macabre footage on television of ISIS beheadings.

Jonathan knows few details of Sahra’s ISIS life. But as U.S. fighter jets pound ISIS positions in Iraq and Syria, Sahra’s messages have become increasingly frantic, with her apologizing that she has only sporadic communications—a signal, perhaps, that the organization is on the run.

On November 2 Jonathan’s phone beeped with a new Facebook message he had waited weeks to read. “The connection is very weak,” Sahra wrote. “I hope you are well and that work is very good,” she went on, then scrambled to finish without punctuation. “I’m sorry I’m hurrying I’ll be quick all okay except for the planes.”

TIME

The Fight Against Ebola Could Lead to Surge in Measles and Malaria

The reflection on an ambulance window of an Ebola outreach team from the Bong County International Medical Corps treatment unit in Kakata, Liberia, Oct. 24, 2014.
The reflection on an ambulance window of an Ebola outreach team from the Bong County International Medical Corps treatment unit in Kakata, Liberia, Oct. 24, 2014. Daniel Berehulak—The New York Times/Redux

Focus on Ebola has affected prevention of more deadly diseases

This year’s Ebola outbreak is far from over, and it has already killed more people than all other previous outbreaks: Nearly 5,000 people, among a total of about 13,200 cases. Even so, health experts are already bracing for the next deadly epidemics, which they fear are lurking on the horizon as a direct knock-on effect of the Ebola crisis, and which have the potential to kill many more thousands than that virus looks likely to do. Chief among them are two deadly diseases: Measles and malaria.

Take measles, whose power to spread and kill people is even more lethal than Ebola; it is about 18 times more infectious than Ebola. While almost all Americans and Europeans are immunized against measles, the disease killed about 122,000 people in 2012 (the most recent figures), many of them in Africa’s poorest parts, including the three Ebola-hit countries of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. Although that might seem like a grim death toll, health experts hail the figures as a sign of success of the U.N.’s mass vaccination programs, since the number has plummeted since the 1990s, when more than 500,000 people a year, or about 1,300 a day, died of measles.

But 2014 could mark the year when that progress slides back, at least in the three hard-hit Ebola countries. Among the multitude of problems Ebola has brought is the fact that mothers are currently giving birth at home, rather than in clinics—an act that health workers in Africa have spent years trying to persuade them not to do.

As Ebola swept through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia late last year and early this year, vaccination programs struggled to keep pace with the huge demands of treating those patients. Desperately short of health workers at the best of times, the countries focused their meager resources on trying to control the outbreak, throwing regular health services into havoc. By mid-summer, say health experts, countless clinics had shut down, while those that remained open found families deeply reluctant to visit, for fear of being infected with Ebola. “Limited human resources were diverted to the outbreak,” says Peter Salama, a Unicef epidemiologist who heads the organization’s global Ebola response. Salama estimates that in Liberia at least half the children who ought to have been vaccinated against measles and other diseases this year have not been. “Measles is very highly transmissible,” he told TIME on Monday. “You need high coverage to prevent an outbreak.”

Health workers are fearful too. As Ebola has spread, one of their most essential tasks—vaccinating children—has now become one of the most dangerous to perform, since infections occur through bodily fluids. “We limit the use of needles tremendously in these circumstances,” says Christopher Stokes, general manager of the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) Ebola crisis center in Brussels, which coordinates MSF’s outbreak response. In additions, officials in those countries have stopped crowds of people from gathering–exactly the situations where mass vaccinations are performed–in an attempt to contain the outbreak. “Routine vaccination services are free in these areas, and all of that has stopped,” Stokes says. “The question now is, how do you restart immunizations in the middle of an Ebola epidemic? Everyone is right to be worried about it.”

The other big post-Ebola epidemic could be malaria, which is a huge killer even in normal years; about 627,000 people died of malaria in 2012— 125 times the number that have so far died of Ebola this year. Unlike measles (and similar to Ebola) there is no vaccine for malaria. But Unicef and others distribute free anti-malarial tablets and mosquito repellents to millions of Africans. Those programs have also faltered this year, as health workers scramble to treat Ebola patients, and as clinics that would normally conduct malaria programs have shut. MSF workers recently began distributing malaria tablets in Ebola-hit villages, by having people throw coupons from a distance and then picking up their kits without contact with health workers.

While programs like that might help to stave off a spike in malaria deaths, halting a deadly outbreak of measles—a totally preventable disease—could prove a lot more complicated. “Immunization will have to be very carefully done,” Stokes says. “This will not be an easy one.”

TIME ebola

WHO Chief Says Ebola Response ‘Did Not Match’ Scale of the Outbreak

TIME sits down with WHO Director-General Margaret Chan

The Ebola outbreak in West Africa has morphed into one of our biggest health crises in years, with at least 4,900 known deaths among more than 13,000 cases and experts warning the worst could be yet to come.

Despite a growing international effort to combat the virus, outside health experts say the United Nations’ World Health Organization (WHO)—the only worldwide health institution—has been slow to react. They stress that there’s plenty of blame to go around, including with the U.S. and other regional governments, who were tragically sluggish in responding to Ebola. Still, critics complain that WHO has failed to lead the global fight—exactly the kind of crisis it has aimed to efficiently handle or prevent since its founding in 1948. In general, many say it’s “too politicized, too bureaucratic… too overstretched and too slow to adapt to change,” according to a report by the London think tank Chatham House, citing health experts and some former WHO staffers.

Armchair critics have it too easy, says WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, or “DG,” as she’s known in the graceful Geneva headquarters. WHO, she says, is only as good as the world’s 194 governments—their members, whose contributions pay their salaries and set direction—allow them to be. Governments haven’t raised their WHO dues in decades. The global financial crisis has pummeled the organization, stripping it of $1 billion in funds and about 1,000 bright minds. If the world wants a strong WHO, its staffers say, it needs to plow more money in and help it transform—and hopefully stop the next outbreak from whipping half way across the globe in just seven months.

On Oct. 28, WHO invited TIME to spend the day inside its Geneva headquarters, watching officials grapple with the Ebola epidemic and sitting in on a two-hour, top-level crisis meeting. In a wide-ranging interview with TIME’s Vivienne Walt, in her Geneva office, Chan, a 67-year-old Hong Konger, explains how she and her staff have struggled with the outbreak:

TIME: When was the moment when you thought to yourself, “Holy cow, this Ebola outbreak is big?”

Margaret Chan: I heard about it moving up at the end of June, when the analysis [inside WHO headquarters] was presented. I was very concerned. I asked my scientists to give me an assessment. After that we scaled up unprecedentedly. We have managed many outbreaks in the past but this has got to be the biggest. If you are going to war with Ebola, you need soldiers, weapons, and you need a war chest. WHO is well geared and has the capacity to do outbreaks on a smaller scale. We have been doing this for many, many years, protecting the world from pandemics. But this, the complexity and the scale of things, outstripped the capacity of WHO.

TIME: You say it was the end of June when you thought, oh my God. But people I’ve interviewed in the U.S. and elsewhere tell me that for months they were raising the alarm, from back in March, and that somehow the sense of urgency was not felt here at WHO in Geneva. Is that a fair criticism?

Chan: Well, with the benefit of hindsight, in retrospect…. We are doing a retrospective study on a regular basis, with all this information of colleagues around the world. And they realize, actually, cases of Ebola were spreading in a hidden manner. And now, looking back, all of us would say, yes, the scale of the response did not match the scale of the outbreak. And that is fair. And of course all of us underestimated the complexity.

When you look at this outbreak, thousands of people in Africa died and it didn’t get the attention it deserved until recently. People were saying, quite rightly, it takes a few cases outside of Africa to get attention. This was a perfect storm in the making. In the past, Ebola outbreaks happened in the bush in small villages. Twenty, 30, 40 years ago, there were less people in these countries, and less movement of people. It happened in three countries which came out of long-term conflict. Health systems were destroyed. And in terms of doctors and nurses, they have one or two per 100,000.

TIME: Yes, that’s certainly true. But others say you in Geneva did not get the information from the field when the outbreak occurred, that the details did not reach you. One person we’ve interviewed describe some WHO regional offices are “awful.”

Chan: I’ve promised to do a review and get all the documentation… and will identify what mistakes were made, and correct them. That’s my commitment. But now the most important thing for me is to bring the whole team together, to bring the total assets of the organization together to fight Ebola. There will be plenty of time for history, and we really need to do it in a transparent and accountable manner. But it is important that we move on and get the job done first and foremost.

TIME: You’re dealing with this unprecedented outbreak. Do you think it is going to change the way WHO works?

Chan: This has to be the turning point. It’s not only Ebola. You have to look at what other crises we are dealing with. We have crises in Central African Republic, Iraq, Syria, South Sudan. My staff are truly, truly at [a] breaking point. Members [governments] need to look at what kind of WHO is appropriate for the 21st century. With climate change, which is the defining issue for the 21st century, and a highly interconnected world, we should expect to see more crises of different sizes, magnitude and geographic location.

When a crisis gets to a certain level the D.G. [Director General] has [to have] the ability to deploy the entire assets of the organization. At this point, I need to consult, ask, urge. We don’t have the money. When I talk to member states, I tell them, the system does not provide the flexibility and the agility for the Director General to manage the organization. I said to them, if you want a credible, strong WHO, we need a WHO reform.

TIME: Do you think pre-recession WHO might have been able to handle the Ebola crisis better? Or with all the money in the world, are you up against something too complex, too difficult?

Chan: This is too big and it’s happening in countries with a lot of factors that amplify it. There are lessons the world’s countries need to learn, like the reliance on old experience to deal with Ebola in a new context. What worked 20, 30, 40 years ago will not work. Another lesson: I was not able and also MSF [Doctors Without Borders] we were not able to mobilize people. For the typhoon in the Philippines [in 2013] 150 medical teams came to help. For the Haiti earthquake, more than 125,000 aid workers came. With Ebola, the fear factor, the lack of formal medevac, lack of quality health care…. Outbreaks are human-resource intensive. To manage an Ebola treatment center of 80 beds you need 200 health workers. And I need foreign medical teams to manage them. The U.S. and U.K. governments are building state-of-the-art treatment centers to take care of health care workers in Liberia and Sierra Leone. So there are some good signs and things that are coming.

TIME: Any regrets about decisions made early on or not made early on?

Chan: If people think WHO alone can prevent this crisis I think people are trivializing the reality on the ground. In the initial phase, we sent experts right away. We sent commodities, we sent equipment, we supported governments.… But, as I said, the transmission of the disease was spreading hidden through the movement of people.

I’ve been asking myself: how much time can I spend on Ebola given that it is going to be a sustained, severe outbreak? I [spend] about 70% of my time on Ebola. Would my member states accept I’m a one-issue D.G. There are more people dying of non-communicable diseases: Cancers, heart diseases, lung diseases, diabetes. There are millions suffering from mental health conditions. There are many people dying too early in road crashes. Can I drop everything? I don’t think so. I work at least 18 hours a day, even on weekends. And I’ve also learned great humility is important—to make sure we are not taken by surprise by an unforgiving virus.

TIME: It seems to me that WHO and certainly you have been talking about reforming WHO for years, and you have been running up against walls. So, is Ebola a crisis of such magnitude that this will shake the world into rethinking all this, allowing reform to happen?

Chan: This Ebola outbreak should really make them [governments] look very hard, really hard, at if outbreak control is so important, why didn’t they [WHO] have resources to do the job? The problem is that with prevention when you do a good job people say, okay that’s alright, now we need to move the money some place else.

Ebola for 40 years was an African disease. The world this time has learned a lesson: The world is ill-prepared for severe, sustained public health emergencies. That’s why I hope this is a turning point, a watershed event for people to understand that. If you want global health security, you need to invest.

In the next 2.5 years [Chan retires in 2017], I’m going correct all the mistakes before I leave this organization. I have the responsibility to the governments, but governments also have to look at how they can support WHO to do what they want it to do.

With the reforms [streamlined staff, reworked programs] I would never have been able to pull it off without the financial crisis. I’m very good at this. You know why? There are two sides to the Chinese character for crisis: One side crisis, one side opportunity. Deeper reforms will come from the Ebola crisis. I’m not going to waste this crisis.

For more, read TIME‘s feature on how the World Health Organization has come under fire for its failure to stop Ebola

TIME France

Oil Exec Who Charmed Kings and Dictators Killed in Plane Crash

Total CEO Christophe de Margerie Dies in Plane Crash
Christophe de Margerie, chief executive officer of Total SA, reacts during a Bloomberg Television interview on day three of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, on Friday, Jan. 24, 2014. Simon Dawson—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Tributes For Total CEO Killed When His Jet Hit a Snowplow On Russian Runway

Christophe de Margerie, the CEO and chairman of the French energy giant Total who was killed in a private plane accident in Moscow on Monday night, was fond of saying that one couldn’t drill for oil in pleasant, peaceful places — a riposte to environmentalists and human-right activists who have railed against oil companies for cutting lucrative deals with repressive leaders. “I’d be more than delighted to go find energy in Club Med,” he told TIME back in December 2009, seated on a private plane during an overnight flight from Paris to the Persian Gulf state of Bahrain. “But we’ve tried, and did not find it.”

It was a characteristically blunt statement in an industry that is famous for its opaque leadership rather than plain-talking executives. Unlike his peers, De Margerie, 63, seemed unconcerned about what he said publicly. Rather, he appeared to relish his image as an outsized personality whose common touch — despite his wealthy family background — won him friends, as well as some detractors, in difficult, even hostile, places. Explaining his personality, he told TIME that his lifelong shyness (“I hate going on stage, I’m really scared,” he said) had compelled him from childhood to become a keen observer of people, and that he had learned to “listen to people, from the hotel doorman to the King of Saudi Arabia.”

Tributes flooded in on Tuesday after news broke that De Margerie had died on his way back from Moscow where he had attended a gathering of foreign investors and met with Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev at Medvedev’s country residence near the capital. The private plane in which De Margerie was traveling collided with a snowplow at Moscow’s Vnukovo International airport shortly before midnight, killing him and three French crew members on board. Russian investigators quickly blamed the operator of the plow (who survived unscathed), saying that the man was drunk, and adding that air traffic controllers might also have made errors. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov voiced President Vladimir Putin’s condolences, saying that the Russian leader “has long known De Margerie [and] had a close working relationship with him.” In Paris, President François Hollande said De Margerie had “brilliantly defended the level of excellence and success of French technology,” and praised his “independent character” and “originality.”

Indeed, it seemed hundreds of people across the world knew De Margerie — if only as the man with the abundant gray whiskers framing his corpulent cheeks, which had earned him the nickname of “Monsieur Moustache” among his employees.

De Margerie joined the company in 1974 fresh out of university, largely, he told TIME, because it was a 10-minute walk from his family home in western Paris, and because his youthful dream of becoming a motorcycle policeman had come to naught. He rose to head its crucial exploration and production department, helping to expand hugely Total’s operations across the world. He became CEO in 2007 and chairman in 2010. During his career the company faced several serious accusations of wrongdoing. He and other Total executives faced charges in France of helping then Iraqi President Saddam Hussein skirt the U.N.’s oil-for-food sanctions during the 1990s and although they were cleared, the company paid a fine in the U.S. And after an oil tanker broke apart and sank off the Brittany coast in 1999, spewing thousands of tons of oil into the sea and killing an estimated 150,000 sea birds, a Paris court ordered Total to pay more than $250 million in damages.

Apparently unaffected by these controversies, De Margerie steadily built Total into a giant company, opening new fields across the world — including in places from which other energy companies steered clear, like Burma and Yemen. Total is now the fourth biggest Western oil company, after ExxonMobil, Royal Dutch Shell and Chevron, with nearly 100,000 employees in 130 countries and revenues of nearly $240 billion last year.

But De Margerie will likely be remembered most of all for his insistence that governments should as much as possible leave it to oil companies to decide where to operate. And it is that insistence that led him most regularly into fiery debates with activists, who accused Total of cozying up to dictators in order to win concessions that were worth billions.

De Margerie, unlike other oil executives, never shied away from the argument, telling journalists that the world could face a serious oil shortage — an argument that seems less urgent these days, with declining growth in demand for oil and sinking prices on the world oil markets. “Where is electricity coming from? Flowers?” he told TIME during the flight from Paris to Bahrain in late 2009. “Maybe some day. But what’s available now is from oil and gas,” he said.

De Margerie defended his decision to extract natural gas in Burma and pipe it across the country at a time when U.S. sanctions prevented most American business links with the military government, telling an audience of Columbia University students in 2009, “Who is telling us who are the cowboys and who are the Indians? People who have never been in those countries.” As such, De Margerie nurtured relationships even under sanctions — including in Russia, where Total has a $27-billion deal to produce liquefied natural gas in Siberia.

Gregarious, with a love of fine dining — his grandfather Pierre Taittinger founded the famed Champagne house of that name — De Margerie was known to be excellent company, no matter one’s views. During the all-night flight on the rented private plane he slept little, preferring to talk for hours about everything from politics to the latest celebrity gossip, and to debate which Bordeaux wine on offer in the plane was best. Back then, Total executive Jacques de Boisseson, who heads the company’s exploration and production operations in Russia, told TIME that his boss had a knack for breaking the ice even in formal meetings with heads of state — and even after arriving late, as he frequently did. “He changes a meeting with his personal touch,” de Boisseson said. “He can get very close to very different people.”

TIME France

Frenchman’s Beheading Raises Fears of Wider Fight Against ISIS

A portrait of mountain guide Frenchman Herve Gourdel hangs near a French flag outside the town hall in Saint-Martin-Vesubie, Sept. 25, 2014.
A portrait of Herve Gourdel hangs outside the town hall in Saint-Martin-Vesubie, France, Sept. 25, 2014. Patrice Masante—Reuters

French and other officials are wondering how widely they will need to fight in order to crush ISIS's growing influence

The videotaped killing of French tourist Hervé Gourdel in Algeria on Wednesday seemed at first yet another in a string of horrific beheadings of Westerners—the fourth since the chilling death last month of American journalist James Foley. Yet to Western officials, the killing bore another ominous signal too: That the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria, or ISIS, could become far more complicated as the terror group’s clout expands across a region already awash in weaponry and riven by violent upheaval.

Far different from the three Westerners ISIS has beheaded in Syria – Foley, American journalist Steven Sotloff and British aid worker David Haines–Gourdel, 55, was hundreds of miles from any lethal battlefront and seemed to have no expectation that he was headed into potential danger. A mountain guide from a small village near Nice, he arrived in Algeria last Saturday to hike in the rugged area of the country’s northeast Tizi Ouzu region. He was kidnapped one day later by a new group calling itself Jund al-Khalifa. The organization had broken away from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) just earlier this month and sworn allegiance to ISIS. It threatened to kill Gourdel unless France stopped its airstrikes on ISIS in Iraq, which began on September 19. A second, grisly video appeared on the Internet Wednesday, showing men with their faces concealed standing over Gourdel, one announcing they were executing him as a “message of blood for the French government.” The final shot shows one of the men apparently holding Gourdel’s severed head.

In the shocked aftermath, French and other officials were left wondering how widely they will need to fight in order to crush ISIS’s growing influence—and whether they might be drawn into another war less than two years after France fought a major air and ground assault against al-Qaeda to force them out of northern Mali. In an impassioned speech to the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday just hours after Gourdel’s murder, a somber French President François Hollande made it clear that he would not call off France’s bombing raids on ISIS, saying, “It is not weakness that should be the response to terrorism but force.”

What kind of force might succeed is unclear, however. Just 16 months ago, Hollande declared France’s Mali war a success, saying his forces had effectively crushed AQIM and its allies. But in recent weeks, North African officials and journalists have said that ISIS’ rise in Syria, and its sweep across Iraq, could reenergize remnant fighters from France’s fight, many of whom slipped across Mali’s remote desert border with Algeria as French troops closed in. They said lethal battles might begin as different jihadist organizations vy for primacy in the region—perhaps by proving their lethality against Westerners.

“We will witness an internal war within the Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” the Algerian newspaper L’Expression wrote earlier this month, citing “very well-informed sources,” and said that as groups compete to become the main jihadist organization in the region, ISIS-aligned organizations could begin assassinating those still affiliated to al-Qaeda who “could hamper the emergence of ISIS in North Africa.”

As it was, the first public assassination was Gourdel, a totally innocent Frenchmen—signaling that Westerners, even far from Syria, are now potential targets. On Wednesday, the SITE Intelligence Group, a U.S. terrorism monitoring organization, warned that Gourdel’s murder could be the start of a new pattern. “As the Islamic State has instructed its supporters all over the world to execute attacks, the beheading of this French hostage may not be the last demonstration of this nature,” SITE director Rita Katz said in an online commentary after Gourdel’s killing.

For France, there are compelling reasons to fight ISIS’ rise in North Africa. Millions of North Africans live in France, which has Europe’s biggest Muslim population, and Algeria, for example, is a cheap two-hour flight from Paris. French officials estimate that more than 900 French citizens have joined ISIS’ ranks in Syria and Iraq, many just this year, and are increasingly worried that some might return to mount attacks at home. The United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution Wednesday to stop foreign fighters from traveling to join ISIS, and from blocking them from returning back home.

But while Hollande strongly supported that resolution, French officials have shown how difficult it could be to enforce those measures.

On Tuesday—as Gourdel’s life hung in the balance—three French citizens known to have traveled to Syria boarded a flight from Turkey to Marseille without French officials’ knowledge, even though all three were well-known Islamic militants. One pilot in Turkey blocked the group from boarding his plane, fearing they were a potential threat to the flight. Turkish officials then put the three on a plane to Marseille. French officials, who had dispatched police to Paris’ Orly Airport to arrest the three, claim Turkey did not inform them of the change of destination until the group had disembarked in the southern French city and walked through passport control without notice. On Wednesday French Defense Minister Yves le Drian admitted in a radio interview that this week’s incident was “a huge foul-up” caused by muddled communications between Turkey and France.

TIME France

Sarkozy Eyes Return to Frontline French Politics as Hollande Stumbles

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy attends the inauguration of the Institut Claude Pompidou in Nice in March 2014.
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy attends the inauguration of the Institut Claude Pompidou in Nice in March 2014. Eric Gaillard—Reuters

With the Socialist incumbent's popularity ratings plummeting, the former President says he is “too passionate about public debate and the future of my countrymen” to remain on the sidelines

In May, 2012, when an ashen-faced Nicolas Sarkozy appeared before a roomful of crushed supporters to concede defeat to his Socialist rival François Hollande in the French presidential elections, he said: “My involvement in the life of my country will be different from now on.”

Now, it looks it might not be so different after all.

On Friday, Sarkozy finally made public what most French have assumed for months—that he would attempt to unseat the first Socialist leader France has had in 22 years by challenging the deeply unpopular Hollande in 2017. In a letter addressed to “mes chers amis” and posted on his Facebook page, he said he is “too passionate about public debate and the future of my countrymen to see them condemned to choose between today’s desperate spectacle and the prospect of hopeless isolation,” a reference to rocketing support for France’s far-right National Front. Sarkozy said the French should decide for themselves “about the strength and sincerity of my commitment to the service of France,” and characterized himself as a patriot pulled back into the fray, almost out of necessity, to rescue his nation from disaster.

Indeed, few French doubt that their country is in dire need of change. After two and half years in office, Hollande has failed to revive a severely troubled economy, whose unemployment rate, near 11%, is the highest in at least 15 years, and whose 4.3% public deficit is way above the European Union’s 3% target. Poll after poll shows Hollande’s support draining away, and one survey earlier this month put his popularity rating at 13%, the lowest of any French leader since World War II. In his twice-yearly press conference on Thursday, a chastened Hollande (whose bruises this month have included a vicious tell-all book by his former partner, Valérie Trierweiler) admitted to journalists he was struggling in office, saying, “It is not easy.” Yet he insisted he would remain in the Elysée Palace until the end of his term, rejecting a call by about 65% of voters in one recent poll that he resign the presidency.

Still, as miserable as the French are under Hollande, it is unclear that they would embrace Sarko, as the former President is known. In Friday’s letter Sarkozy said he would run for leadership of his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party—a necessary prelude to a formal presidential campaign. But he could face a tough task convincing the UMP that France needs him back in power. In fact, it is possible that his return could staunch the erosion in Hollande’s base, by reminding some voters that the current President might not be so bad after all.

Sarkozy was increasingly disliked—even hated—during his five-year term in office. As news filtered out this past week that he would run again, memories of that unpopularity resurfaced. The cover of one news magazine this week depicts Sarkozy as the Freddy character in the Friday the 13th horror movies, which are about a boy who is dead but keeps coming back. Sarkozy is shown in Freddy’s metal talons and black hat with the sinister headline: “SARKO 2: The Return.”

But that’s assuming he manages to mount a return. Sarkozy faces stiff competition for his own party’s nomination, including from former Foreign Minister Alain Juppé, who has recently won attention for injecting dynamism into the southwestern city of Bordeaux, where he is Mayor.

In fact, for Sarkozy, the primary race for his party’s nomination could be even tougher than his 2007 presidential campaign, which he fought against a tepid Socialist contender, Hollande’s pre-Trierweiler partner Ségolène Royal. Sarkozy won by promising dramatic economic and social changes, including cutting France’s oversized bureaucracy and scrapping laws that have stifled private-sector investment for years. In office, those plans hit a wall of resistance from lobby groups and trade unions, and many French blamed Sarkozy’s irascible style for aggravating the conflict. Voters ultimately judged him to be volatile and a bully, with a jarring fondness for expensive living. He married the wealthy singer-model Carla Bruni while in office, and a video camera once caught him on a rope line muttering under his breath to a modest-looking man in the crowd, “Piss off, poor asshole.” Overcoming this history will not be easy, and that’s before he confronts the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, whom polls currently place as the most likely winner in the 2017 presidential race.

For now, Sarkozy is trying to portray himself as a new man, someone who has polished off the rough edges and mellowed through his years in political exile. In recent photographs, he is tanned and relaxed from a summer vacation in Bali, wearing an open-neck shirt and sporting a common-man’s stubble on his chin. In his Facebook letter on Friday, he said he is not the same person he was as president, writing: “I’ve been able to step back and analyze my term in office, to draw lessons, go back to our common history, measure the vanity of certain feelings, avoiding revenge or confrontation.” The combat, however, has only just begun.

TIME

Former French First Lady’s Tell-All Book Adds To Hollande’s Woes

Valerie Trierweiler in the gardens at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris in 2013.
Valerie Trierweiler in the gardens at the Elysee presidential palace in Paris in 2013. Thomas Samson—AFP/Getty Images

Valérie Trierweiler's account of her life with the French President has sparked controversy, as a new poll shows that his popularity ratings have sunk to 13%—the lowest of any French leader in about 70 years

Revenge is a dish best served cold, as the saying goes, meaning that it takes a cool, level head to deliver just the right sucker punch. That might be the most telling lesson from the scandal that has erupted this past week in France, over the former First Lady Valérie Trierweiler’s explosive tell-all book about her life with President François Hollande. “Thank You For This Moment” appeared in bookstores last Wednesday, with no forewarning to French officials, and its initial print-run of 200,000 sold out within days, inspiring countless front-page articles about the apparently callous behavior of a never-married president towards the women in his life. Yet there has been equally harsh criticism of Trierweiler, whose stinging words have sounded to many like petty whining, at least when compared with the severe economic crisis Hollande is struggling to fix.

To recap (if readers need reminding): Hollande’s domestic life imploded in spectacular fashion last January when the French gossip magazine Closer published photographs of him sneaking out of the sumptuous Napoleonic palace on his motorbike, to spend the night with his alleged lover, the French actress Julie Gayet. Three weeks later (hours after TIME interviewed Hollande inside the Elysée) Hollande declared his seven-year relationship with Trierweiler over, in a bland 18-word written statement. While the world lapped up the details, inside the palace, the couple spiraled into a private hell that threatened Trierweiler’s physical wellbeing, according to the former First Lady. Trierweiler, 49, describes the president frantically trying to prevent her from swallowing a fistful of sleeping pills the morning the news broke. “I swallow what I can. I want to sleep. I don’t want to live through the coming hours,” Trierweiler recounted to Paris Match magazine, where she has been a longtime staff writer; her book was splashed on the magazine’s cover last week. “I want to escape. I lose consciousness.” Trierweiler then spent a week in the hospital, with officials claiming at the time that she was suffering the effects of extreme stress.

Bad as that account is, other parts of Trierweiler’s book that take aim at Hollande’s battered political standing could be even more damaging for the French leader. Trierweiler casts herself as a working-class woman at sea within the cocooned political elite into which she was thrust—and with no empathy from Hollande. She claims the Socialist leader, who won power in 2012 by casting the then-President Nicolas Sarkozy as representing only the rich, was “bored to tears” when dining with her family in their low-income home, preferring, she says, to visit the Gayets’ grand chateau in southwestern France. “He campaigned as the enemy of the rich but the truth is that he despises the poor,” Trierweiler writes, saying that Hollande mocked the poor as “sans-dents” or toothless, referring to the cost of dental treatment.

The claims have put Hollande under withering scrutiny, even from reliably friendly sources. “Who are you François Hollande?” asked the weekend front page of the left-leaning Liberation newspaper, which supports the ruling Socialist Party. Inside, its editorial says that the president, most often vilified for being soft-edged and ineffectual, emerges in Trierweiler’s book as hard and cynical, adding, “The marshmallow president becomes the flint president.”

The new image will not likely help Hollande, who has overseen a worsening economy and rising unemployment. On Sunday the polling agency IFOP released a survey taken on Friday and Saturday (after Trierweiler’s book came out) showing that 65% of Socialist Party voters did not want Hollande to run for reelection in 2017. A separate poll on Friday by TNS-Sofres showed that Hollande’s popularity ratings had sunk to 13%, the lowest of any French president in about 70 years. And although only five percent of those IFOP surveyed named Hollande’s rocky private life as their top criticism of him, some believe Trierweiler’s revelations could well be a turn-off for many voters. “He looks like a man who really does not behave well at all,” says Colombe Pringle, a long-time observer of Elysée politics, and editorial consultant to the celebrity magazine Point de Vue. His bad behavior, she says, is “not only with his “toothless” remark but also in his daily life with women in general, and with her [Trierweiler] in particular.”

There is one woman to emerge stronger from this latest scandal: Marine Le Pen, who heads France’s far-right National Front party. This weekend’s IFOP poll showed that Le Pen would beat Hollande in a second-round presidential race, if the elections were held today—something that no far-right leader has come close to accomplishing in France. Delighted by the result, Le Pen told party members at a rally on Sunday that it “shows there is no longer a glass ceiling that would block our electoral victory.” Much could change between now and the next elections, which are two and a half years away, but for now, the upheaval in French politics appears a boost for Hollande’s foes.

In contrast to Le Pen’s buoyant speech, the woman at the heart of the roiling scandal—Trierweiler—quietly slipped out of France on Saturday, flying to Madagascar with a photographer on an unnamed assignment, according to the conservative Figaro newspaper. Politicians of all stripes have condemned Trierweiler for sullying the office of the president, by revealing prurient details best left unknown. “It is a disgrace for France,” Le Pen said of Trierweiler’s book. Even from over 5,000 miles away, Trierweiler might be wondering whether her tell-all book will backfire on her, leaving her as isolated as the two-timing president. “It will be very difficult for her to continue leading her life and being a journalist,” Pringle says. “I think she will pay a very high price.”

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