The first François Hollande heard of the bloodiest terror attack in French history was when bodyguards spirited the president out of a France-Germany football game after what many in the crowd of 80,000 assumed were two powerful firecrackers rocked the stadium.
In fact, at around 9.20pm, a first suicide bomber detonated his explosive belt – the murderous starter gun for the toughest 24 hours in Mr Hollande’s three-year presidency. A second, then a third followed.
For the second time in nine months, France was the global focus of horror and despair at mindless Islamist violence – not against a specific target like blasphemous cartoonists, soldiers or Jews – but anyone out on the town and in the wrong place.
Seen as indecisive and wobbly on the domestic political and economic front, the unpopular Mr Hollande has consistently shown steely resolve on foreign policy and security issues, taking on jihadists in Mali and launching airstrikes in Syria. Even his enemies credited him with finding the right tone to reassure and unite the French in the wake of the January attacks in the offices of Charlie Hebdo and a Jewish grocery.
This time, however, the scale of the atrocity was on altogether another level and it was written all over his face. Terror experts had foreseen an imminent French September 11, security chiefs had told France to steel itself for attacks and yet when these unfolded, the shock to the head of state was clearly hard to bear.
Mr Hollande struggled to contain his emotion in a televised address confirming “dozens” of dead, declaring a state of emergency, the closure of its borders, military reinforcements in the Paris area and an ongoing mass hostage taking in a concert hall.
With gunmen likely still on the loose, the president ignored staunch warnings from his security advisers to stay away from the concert hall, heading to the scene after the final police shootout – as he did in January – to show he had a semblance of control over the chaos.
But as the scale of the carnage became apparent in the early hours, and Paris awoke to shuttered shops and dread in its heart, the president had little choice but to address the country once more.
“This was prepared, organised planned outside the country with inside complicity that the investigation will establish.
“France will be merciless toward the Isil barbarians,” said Mr Hollande, declaring three days of mourning.
Earlier he presided over a special defence council meeting, the Gallic equivalent of Britain’s Cobra committee.
Photo: Getty Images
Throughout the day the president held “intense” diplomatic discussions with all of the top world leaders. With messages of condolences and solidarity pouring in from around the world, some have called for a mass march to match the Je Suis Charlie one that drew four million in January in tribute to the dead. It also included a mix of world leaders from Angela Merkel to Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, and Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian authority president.
No such plans were announced, but in one act of defiance in the face of the terror threat, the French government confirmed that next month’s crucial international climate conference, in which 196 world leaders, including Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, are due to convene on the French capital to thrash out measures to limit global warming, will indeed go ahead, despite security fears.
With his ruling Socialist Party heading for a drubbing in upcoming December elections, Mr Hollande had hoped to kick start his ailing presidency by securing a landmark deal at the summit.
None of that matters to the French right now. They are shaken but clearly not bowed given the numbers milling in the streets of Paris yesterday. They aren’t looking for political point scoring, they need a captain in a storm, and Mr Hollande knows it.
It is in that spirit of unity that he will on Sunday convene meetings with all of France’s political leaders, from Nicolas Sarkozy, the ex-president, to Marine Le Pen, head of the far-Right Front National.
Then on Monday, the president will convene the upper and lower houses of parliament in Versailles to brief them on the next steps.
“National unity is essential”, said Claude Bartolone, the ruling Socialists parliamentary speaker. It is a rare spectacle to see a French president, viewed virtually as a Republican monarch and above the parliamentary fray, address MPs and senators.
But it is an essential move, said Mr Bartolone, “in order to show the jihadist terrorists that every tear, every drop of blood will only strengthen our resolve against this obscurantism and against this desire to attack what France stands for.”