Fifty-three hours into France’s worst security crisis in a generation, President Francois Hollande and his closest advisers came to an agonizing conclusion.
Gathered to supervise the response to a pair of attacks by Islamist terrorists, they were told by police commanders over secure cell phones that the resolution would have to involve simultaneous assaults. That meant synchronizing special-forces teams 25 miles apart against opponents armed with automatic weapons, a rocket launcher and no qualms about more killing.
At about 4 p.m. on Jan. 9, Hollande was seated at the oval wooden conference table in his Elysee Palace office with Prime Minister Manuel Valls, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and Justice Minister Christiane Taubira. A window was open to the garden, taking advantage of unseasonably warm weather. Chief of Staff Jean-Pierre Jouyet shuttled in and out of the room as the Elysee military attache, General Benoit Puga, was advising the president on his decision.
Hollande never gave the order. Events spiraled too fast, as government officials and eyewitnesses later recounted.
By the time the shooting ended just over an hour later, three terrorists were dead, bringing the body count of victims and perpetrators during the three-day crisis to 20.