During a presidential walkabout in northern France this week, two people on the street begged François Hollande to abandon his plan for a punitive strike on Syria.
“It is not our war,” a young man said. A woman shouted: “It is not our problem.”
“Everything is our problem,” President Hollande replied.
During his successful presidential campaign last year, Mr Hollande was mocked as a “pedal-boat captain”. In the past 16 months he has emerged as frustratingly minimalist reformer at home but a bold, warrior-president abroad, launching France’s lightning and successful war against Islamist radical rebels in Mali in January. Why?
In part, one side of Hollande explains the other. At home, he is obliged to be cautious by his consensual instincts and France’s explosive resistance to change. Abroad, he can be decisive and statesmanlike.
The French constitution gives the President substantial, independent powers over foreign and defence issues. And Hollande may have seen an opportunity to graduate, finally, from diffident new boy to European and world leader.
Most of all, however, friends say that the President’s commitment to strikes is rooted in personal conviction. If a large-scale use of chemical weapons goes unpunished, the world, not just the Middle East, will have stumbled into a menacing, new era. That, he believes, cannot be dismissed as “someone else’s problem”.