Paris is once again full of rumblings about the political ambitions of the French military — 60 years after France’s iconic leader Charles de Gaulle saw off a coup bid by disaffected generals, who were furious at his decision to withdraw from Algeria.
The country’s media and politics has been dominated for the past week by the fallout from an open letter drafted by a former captain in the gendarmerie, claiming France faces “mortal dangers” and warning that he and his fellow ex-servicemen “cannot remain indifferent to the fate of our beautiful country.”
More than 2,000 former servicemen and women, among them a number of retired generals, signed the letter warning that France was in “peril” from “Islamism and the hordes from the suburbs.” The signatories said: “Those who run our country must imperatively find the needed courage to eradicate these dangers.”
France’s far-right leader Marine Le Pen has been quick to back the sentiments, and on Sunday accused French President Emmanuel Macron of steering France towards chaos, violence and economic decline.
The political furor prompted by the open letter, which was published on the sixtieth anniversary of the 1961 coup bid against Charles De Gaulle, is setting the stage for a bruising presidential election next year.
Le Pen, who is within striking distance of defeating Macron in the 2022 election, has urged the military signatories to back her presidential bid, prompting one government minister, Marlène Schiappa, to accuse Le Pen of “supporting a would-be putsch.”
A survey by pollsters Harris Interactive that 58% of the French population share the views expressed by the disaffected military officers. According to the poll, 49% believe it would be right for the army to intervene to maintain order in certain circumstances “even if the government did not ask for it.”
Eighteen serving soldiers who endorsed the warning about the risk of “civil war” in France are to face sanctions for breaching army rules about political neutrality, according to the chief of staff of France's armed forces. And Gen. François Lecointre says there will be exemplary punishment for the general and other retired senior officers who signed the letter, including a possible ban on them wearing uniforms on ceremonial occasions and even reducing their pensions.
Some of the signatories of the letter, which warned the “hour is grave, and France is in peril,” have ties to anti-immigration movements. The signatories claim several French cities have been transformed into zones of “lawlessness” that are shaking the foundations of the French Republic and they chided politicians for timidity.
The row over the rare intervention in politics by military figures served as a backdrop to violent May Day celebrations with trade unionists attacked Sunday by masked protesters, some believed to belong to anarchist groups. More than 20 trade unionists and one police officer were injured in the fracas.
Le Pen’s May Day speech took up themes struck in the open letter with the far-right leader decrying “crime and urban riots” and warning of chaos, which she says will worsen if Macron is reelected.
She defended the signatories, saying they had done nothing worse than “raise an alarm after a life spent serving the nation.”
France's mainstream parties have been quick to denounce the letter. Prime Minister Jean Castex, said the political intervention by military figures violates France's republican principles and the “honor and duty” of the army. Benoit Hamon, the Socialist Party’s candidate for the last presidential election, says the letter amounts to a “threat of a coup.”
Florence Parly, the defense minister, says two “immutable principles” should guide the actions of members of the military with regard to politics: “neutrality and loyalty.”
The political strife roiling the country has prompted prominent academic Pascal Perrineau to warn “France is sitting on a volcano.” In an interview with the newspaper Les Echos the renowned political scientist said France is being engulfed by three crises — socio-economic, medical and one over cultural values and what it means to be French.
“The French no longer agree on what makes France,” he said. “Do we still believe in a republic organized according to the pact of laicité [government-enforced secularism]? Or do we accustom ourselves to a society in which various communities co-habit? This is a profound debate, an incredibly deep fracture, about the very nature of France.”
The military’s open letter has added heat to an ongoing debate about what it means to be French. The signatories identified three trends which they say will lead to France’s disintegration — anti-racism, Islamism, and agitation against the police. The authors say anti-racism movements pose a threat because “they hide the hateful fanatics who want to start a racist war.”
Macron isn’t the only European leader incurring threats from the military. Former members of Spain’s armed forces also published an open letter last year accusing the country’s Socialist-led minority government of threatening national unity. The letter signed by 271 officers, including two former lieutenant generals and an admiral, came just days after dozens of retired air force officers were discovered to have discussed fomenting a coup.