The appeal of former generals points to deep cracks in French society



When he first appeared in a dark place military bloc last month, a call to arms from retired French generals that was about to call for a coup sounded like France was on the brink of civil war.

“France is in danger,” said the statement signed by hundreds of army pensioners and at least 18 active military personnel. He condemned “laxity”, Islamism and “hordes” on the outskirts of the nation’s cities, which all French readers understand as immigrants.

Reprinted in the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles on the 60th anniversary of the generals’ failed rise against President Charles de Gaulle in 1961, the statement was initially rejected by the army command as nostalgic ramblings of old reactionaries.

But a public endorsement by far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who said it was the duty of French patriots to “stand up” to save the country, triggered condemnations of politicians and the defense ministry and the promise to punish the soldiers who signed the declaration.

Three weeks later, the consensus in Paris is that the fury says more about the feverish state of French politics and society than about the state of the army, which is considered professional, politically neutral, and unlikely to do so. a coup. état: something that has not been seen in Western Europe since the frustration of the coup in Spain in 1981

Marine Le Pen, president of the Rassemblement National (RN) party, said it was the duty of the Patriots to “get up” to save the country. © Bertrand Guay / AFP via Getty Images

“There are no more coups in Europe,” said Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on political extremism.

Dominique Trinquand, a former general and now commentator who led France’s military mission to the United Nations, agreed. “This is not serious for the army because those who signed it are not in the army today, or they are few,” he said, noting that prosecutors had decided not to prosecute the case for lack of a crime. criminal.

He also rejected the importance of Le Pen’s call for former generals to join his far-right Rassemblement National party, shown by opinion polls as the main national opposition to President Emmanuel Macron. “What’s funny is that three-quarters of the signatories are already more or less close to the RN,” he said.

The man behind the idea was Jean-Pierre Fabre-Bernadac, a former infantry and gendarmerie officer who ran the security of Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, when the party was called the National Front. And among the signatories was Christian Piquemal, a former head of the French Foreign Legion, who was forced to withdraw completely from the army reserve five years ago to take part in an illegal demonstration against immigrants in Calais .

Former officials, commentators said, had little chance of initiating a coup by an army that is apolitical and increasingly reflects France’s ethnic diversity, but its statement and political resonance they suggested that their concerns were widely shared in society.

Jean-Pierre Fabre-Bernadac: The former infantry and gendarmerie officer led the security of Jean-Marie Le Pen. © France Evening

“Despite the highly controversial words,” Trinquand said, “concern for Islamist law and order and radicals is a sentiment shared by much of the French people.”

According to one opinion poll carried out after the controversy erupted, 58% of French voters – including many from the left – supported the military officers who signed the declaration. An extraordinary 74% thought French society was collapsing and no less than 45% agreed that France “will soon have a civil war”.

Jean-Daniel Lévy, managing director of Harris Interactive, which conducted the survey, said: “In general, the French have the same views as the generals.”

This is the heated political situation in which the two main candidates in next year’s French presidential election are currently incumbent Macron, who won the post four years ago saying he would be “neither right nor left”. but since then it has gone progressively to the right. is based on Islamism and immigration – and Le Pen.

For Camus, the most submissive institution is not the army fighting jihadists in the Sahel, but the national police force that tried to suppress national anti-government demonstrations. yellow vests protesters for more than a year from 2018 and is still at the end of the battles against crime, drugs and terrorism.

“I think the real issue in the coming months will be the police,” Camus said. There was anger in the force over low pay and poor equipment, he said, “and all this because of the risk of being killed by a small drug dealer in broad daylight.”

Two weeks ago, a police officer was killed by a Tunisian Islamist who cut his throat at the entrance of a police station in Rambouillet, the latest in a series of attacks that included a multiple knife murder at the Paris police headquarters in 2019 and the beheading of a master out of school last year by an Islamist Chechen refugee.

In April, police protested what they consider an indulgent treatment by the courts of five young people jailed for attacking and burning two police officers in Viry-Châtillon south of Paris in 2016.

And last Wednesday it was the turn of a policeman in the southern city of Avignon, who was shot dead in the street in a drug bust and whose assailant escaped, which prompted the protest of the same police this weekend.

Retired French general Christian Piquemal during a rally of far-right activists and supporters of PEGIDA (European Patriots Against the Islamization of the West) © Michel Spingler / AP

Researchers claim that Le Pen’s support for the army has been just over 40%, which is not far from the level of the general population, given the support of the far right among young people and the relative youth of active soldiers. In the police, the support exceeds 50%.

Gerald Darmanin, the Interior Minister appointed by Macron last year to crack down on crime and terrorism, seemed to have no doubt that the institution he needed to appease after the Avignon shooting was the police.

Aware of the high reputation of the French armed forces and the poor public image of the police, he paid tribute to the dead by comparing rhythmic police officers to military heroes.

He said the war on drugs was being waged “thanks to these soldiers – and these soldiers are the police officers and gendarmes of France. Today, one of these soldiers has died a hero.”


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