IN THE last month, there have been not one, not two, but three separate ‘open letters’ from representatives of the French state in uniform urging the elected government to take action against a set of growing risks to the integrity of the nation. In April, a large group of retired generals warned of social ‘disintegration’ which might lead to civil war. Last weekend, serving members of the army accused the government of ‘cowardice, deceit and perversion’ in the face of ‘civil unrest simmering in France’. In the last few days 93 former police officers have written to the government urging a ‘national awakening’, and once again evoking a slide towards civil war.
Significantly, National Rally (RN) leader Marine Le Pen wrote an open response to the retired generals, agreeing with their analysis and exhorting them to back her in next year’s presidential elections. Many have noted that support for the RN is highest among service personnel, and has been for many years: two-thirds of serving police officers voted for Le Pen in 2017 (though she only polled one-third of the overall vote). Meanwhile, 58 per cent of French people surveyed said they agreed with the retired generals, and nearly three-quarters believe the country is falling apart. Given the martial tone of both army letters, might we expect some kind of Le Pen-led coup?
If one was to take the hysteria of Left-wing presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon seriously, a putsch would indeed seem imminent. As the brilliant commentator Eugenie Bastié pointed out, while France mourned a police worker murdered by an Islamist terrorist, Mélenchon managed a single sad-faced tweet; two days later, he’d already pinged off half-a-dozen and organised a press conference calling for immediate action against the ‘right-wing agitators’ in the army. Never happier than when he’s snuffling out fascist straw men lurking in the political shadows, he demanded that the website that published the letter be prosecuted, and that any signatories who were active members of the army be expelled.
Senior members of the government quickly fell into step. Rather than address themselves to the message by acknowledging these loyal veterans’ concerns, perhaps mildly rebuking them for not observing their duty to remain politically neutral, they decided instead to take aim at the messengers. Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly threatened those who had once served with court martial, while in turn also accusing them of ‘fanning the flames of hatred’. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin saw dark links with Le Pen père’s past in his daughter’s ‘taste for the sound of marching boots‘.
Unsurprisingly, in their attempts to caricature pointed criticism as extreme Right-wing propaganda, and accusing Marine Le Pen of pouring oil on the fire, the government itself escalated the squabble, causing serving members of the army to come out a fortnight later in support of their ageing comrades. They quoted the French national anthem La Marseillaise in their tribute to their elders who had risked, and lost, their lives for the nation, an example they were willing to follow if needs be.
The most cutting observation these current soldiers made was that many had been deployed in the Sahel – in Mali, Niger and Chad – fighting Isis and Al Qaeda, only to return home to find the very people they’d been risking their lives against were being allowed in through France’s leaky borders. Meanwhile, the government’s militarised response to the Islamist attacks of 2015 saw French troops patrolling the streets of their homeland, where, they said, they were subject to abuse from those who appeared to hate the country they lived in.
President Emmanuel Macron has remained studiously silent throughout, sending out his ministers to deal most of the cack-handed blows. In possibly the most astonishing response, having supported threats to sanction the retired generals who risked punishment for signing their letter publicly, Gérald Darmanin went so far as to accuse his own army of harbouring cowards because they wrote their open letter anonymously. Think about that for a minute. Imagine Priti Patel publicly saying that members of our armed forces lack courage, regardless of whether their actions were justifiable or not. That’s where France is at right now.
It is, of course, deeply rich for a French state which has imposed nightly curfews, introduced passes you have to show police to justify leaving home, and set up road blocks to prevent people travelling too far from their residence during the Covid year, to be talking up fears of some kind of military takeover. But irony aside, where does a country go that has areas where police officers and fire-fighters fear to tread, with armed insurrectionists beheading teachers or mass-murdering concert goers, yet whose leaders turn their fire on to their loyal, patriotic critics quicker than they do their enemies?
No doubt this is why, if talk of a civil war might sound alarmist, it’s possibly only because one side hasn’t taken up arms yet. Heaven knows where things may finish up if that happens.