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What talk of a military coup could mean for France

Soldiers of 2nd Regiment de Dragons during the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

Dark threats about a looming civil war and a coup involving senior military figures have electrified France and made the race for the Élysée Palace all the more febrile.

An intemperate and inaccurate open letter was published last month by 20 retired French generals and 100 other officers, some of them still serving. It was apocalyptic in tone. It warned of “disintegration”, “civil war” and military intervention unless president Emmanuel Macron did, erm, something or other to combat violence, “Islamism” and the “hordes” (ie brown and black people) in the multi-racial suburbs.

No clear ideas were put forward, except “courage” and “patriotism”. The diatribe was published in the far-right magazine Valeurs actuelles. It was followed last Sunday by a similar letter, published on the website of the same magazine, written and signed (supposedly) by unnamed, active military officers.

What to make of all this? The first thing to say is that France is now only 11 months away from a presidential election which the far right believes it has a chance of winning. After more than a year of Covid lockdown, the political mood is growing hysterical – not just on the far right but also on the ‘traditional’ right and on part of the left.

The second thing to say is that France has a long – but also surprisingly recent – history of junta politics and would-be junta politics.

Senior military officers who have seized, or acquired, power in the last two centuries (and a bit) include Napoleon Bonaparte, Philippe Pétain and – much more honourably and positively – Charles de Gaulle.

Others have tried. One military, would-be saviour of the nation was General Georges Ernest Jean-Marie Boulanger, who led a briefly powerful proto-fascist movement – Boulangisme – in the 1880s.

On April 21, 1961, a group of retired generals and serving officers mounted a failed coup against president de Gaulle. 

As recently as the spring of 1988, a handful of generals published a letter in the conservative daily Le Figaro protesting that France would be “in danger” if it re-elected the socialist president François Mitterrand.

The 1988 letter was, purportedly, about cuts in defence spending. The recent “generals’ letter” was quite different in tone and language: the kind of stuff that one can read in a constellation of far right and racist web-sites and pseudo news-sites in France known as the “Fachosphère”.

“Growing chaos… inner-suburban hordes… civil war… final explosion… intervention by our active comrades… cowardly politicians… responsible for thousands of deaths.”

By their date shall you know them. The letter was published on April 21 – the 60th anniversary of the failed coup against de Gaulle’s decision that Algeria could no longer be part of France in the second half of the 20th century.

The retired Gendarmerie captain who wrote it is far from being a random member of the military. Jean-Pierre Fabre-Bernadac, 70, was, in the 1990s, chief security officer for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National  – the  movement which Le Pen’s daughter Marine hopes to bring to power (in allegedly sanitised form) in one year’s time. More recently, Fabre-Bernadac has run a far-right website.

The lead signature was that of a former head of the Foreign Legion, General Christian Piquemal, 80, who has a history of involvement in extremist and anti-migrant movements.

And yet the letter was signed by more than 100 other officers, mostly retired but some still serving: not all of whom have a known record of far right activity. That military officers should be right wing in their politics is hardly a surprise: that they should try to influence an election is disturbing.

It is difficult to know how widely their attitude is shared in a French military whose upper ranks are increasingly female and ethnically diverse.

Within a couple of days, Marine Le Pen responded joyously  (in the same magazine) by appealing to the disgruntled soldiers to join her movement. In a more rational political environment, Le Pen’s endorsement of a de facto threat of a military coup would have done her great harm (and some within her own movement fear that it might still do so).

Marine has, with some success, spent the last 11 years trying to re-brand and fumigate the family business, changing the name over the door from Front National to Rassemblement National. Unlike her father, she has no truck with anti-Semitism, Vichy nostalgia and Holocaust minimisation. She dresses up her party’s Islamophobia as a defence of liberal French values. She claims (to her father’s fury) to be a daughter of Gaullism, not Pétainism.

And yet here she was endorsing a racist-tinged declaration on the anniversary of a failed coup which planned to keep Algeria as part of France.

Nonetheless, the fall-out from the letter has, so far, mostly fallen on president Emmanuel Macron. Politicians of the ‘traditional’ right have formed a disorderly queue to condemn the implied threat of military intervention but endorse the letter’s dark, Trumpian portrait of “Macron’s France” in 2021.

The essential argument of the letter was correct, they say. France is an increasingly violent place. Parts of the inner suburbs (banlieues) are “lost to the Republic”, run by Islamist preachers and violent drugs gangs. Patriotic values are mocked; anti-white racism is preached; politicians look the other way. Like all great populist lies, that narrative exploits elements of the truth.

France is indeed struggling against Islamist extremism. The country has suffered more than 30 Islamist terror attacks in the last six years, including the beheading of a teacher last October for discussing Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed with a class of 14-year-olds.

Parts of the multi-racial banlieues are indeed violent, crime-riddled places  and have been for years. There is no evidence that things are getting worse – or much better.

But the great majority of France’s five million Muslims are hard-working and law-abiding and want to get on with their lives. Referring to them generically as “hordes” is an attempt to inflame France’s problems, not to solve them.

And the supposed wave of violent anarchy? There has been a steady rise in some types of violence in France in the last few years. But to suggest – as the generals do; as Marine Le Pen does; and as some traditional right wing politicians do – that the Macron era has brought an explosion of violence and a “cowardly” and “lax” response by government is essentially false.

In 2016, the year before Macron became president, were 575,000 acts of physical, non-domestic violence in France. By 2018, it had reached 693,000. As recently as 2008 – when the fiercely pro-law-and-order Nicolas Sarkozy was president – there were 875,000. The figures go up and down. There is no “explosion”.

The other great lie in the generals’ letter  is the suggestion that Macron’s  only response to the radical Islamist threat has been “evasion” and “guilty silences”.

Can this, one wonders, be the same president Macron who is accused of “Islamophobia” by parts of the French left and racism by parts of the US media because he brought forward a new law this year to try to curb radical Islam? You can dispute whether Macron’s approach is correct; you can argue  about whether it goes too far; or not far enough. You can’t, if you want to make a serious contribution to the debate, pretend that he has done nothing at all.

The generals’ letter was not intended a serious contribution to debate. It was intended to darken the mood of a country already exhausted by 13 months of Covid lockdowns and persuaded by a drumbeat of lies and half-truths that it faces an unprecedented double crisis of political and non-political violence.

The Macron government has, so far, failed to seize back the narrative. It ignored the generals’ letter at first and then announced disciplinary proceedings against some officers. It has not yet confronted the lies in the text head on. It has only just begun to attack Marine Le Pen’s exposed position as a defender of a cabal of seditious, racist, mostly retired military officers.

Another drumbeat can be heard almost every day in the French media – an assumption that next year Le Pen ‘can’ win the presidency (but may not). It is often accompanied by the suggestion from both left and right that Macron has been not just a disappointment or a failure (as all politicians are up to a point) but somehow more destructive than any previous president.

This is absurd: the price Macron pays for being a centrist upstart and outside the usual families of government. His record is modest and patchy but he has achieved more than any other recent president in terms of sensible economic reform (and he was beginning to reap the benefits in job creation before the pandemic struck).

And yet opposition politicians of left and right and some of the media conspire to paint the portrait of a demonic and dangerous Macron (a portrait which has not been reflected in his reasonably good opinion polls). This is the context in which the generals’ letter should be read.

A French expert on the Arab world,  Gilles Kepel, talks of “atmospheric jihadism” – an ambience in which individuals are tempted to commit acts of terrorism. France risks tumbling into a kind of “atmospheric LePennism” – an ambience in which a Marine victory next year begins to see somehow inevitable. The generals’ letter was intended to give that process another push. It was not so much a military coup as a media coup. It has succeeded up to a point. But only up to a point.

The second “open letter” last Sunday was greeted on the web-site of the conservative daily newspaper Le Figaro with some support but also a great deal of angry mockery. French democracy may be more robust than the retired generals think.

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