French armed forces

French soldiers who warned of ‘civil war’ to face sanctions

French President Emmanuel Macron arrives with Chief of the Defence Staff General Francois Lecointre prior the Bastille Day military parade, Place de la Concorde in Paris, France July 14, 2020.
French President Emmanuel Macron arrives with Chief of the Defence Staff General Francois Lecointre prior the Bastille Day military parade, Place de la Concorde in Paris, France July 14, 2020. REUTERS - POOL

A group of French soldiers, including semi-retired officers and generals, are facing forced retirement and disciplinary action after signing an open letter warning France is heading towards civil war. Initiated by retired generals, some with ties to the hard-right, the letter garnered several thousand signatures from military personnel. But fears of rebellion within the armed forces appear misplaced.

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“The hour is grave, France is in peril,” read the open letter addressed to President Emmanuel Macron, the prime minister and MPs and published last week by right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles.

It denounced the “disintegration” of France and predicted that failure to act against the “suburban hordes” – or residents of largely immigrant areas  –  would lead to “civil war” and deaths “in the thousands”.

It concluded that if nothing were done, the government’s “laxist” policies would end in chaos requiring “the intervention of our comrades on active duty in a perilous mission of protection of our civilizational values”.

Among the letter’s signatories are 24 generals who are close to retirement but who could be recalled to active service. Having breached their duty of reserve which requires them to remain politically neutral, they now face sanctions. France’s armed forces chief of staff, François Lecointre, announced on Wednesday that they would appear before a senior military council which could lead to their being "struck off" and put into "immediate retirement".

18 active soldiers – including four officers – who were also identified as signatories are to receive “military disciplinary sanctions”.

Whistle-blowers

The main instigators of the letter, which first appeared on a military blog on 13 April, are reported to have ties to hard-right, anti-immigration movements. They include Jean-Pierre Fabre-Bernadac who ran security for the far-right National Front in the 1990s; and Christian Piquemal who commanded the Foreign Legion before losing his privileges as a retired officer when he was arrested while taking part in an anti-immigration rally in Calais in 2016.

Another is retired general Antoine Martinez who founded “Volontaires pour la France”, a right-wing group committed to defending “traditional French values”.

On Tuesday, Martinez claimed the letter had received “6,000 signatories in total, including 30 generals”.

“The situation in France is dramatic,” he told BFM TV, evoking the “problem of immigration” and the fatal stabbing of a police worker in Rambouillet in the same breath. “We are whistle-blowers” he said, “alerting the president and government that nothing is being done” to address “this dramatic situation”.

A bunch of has-beens

Not everyone is convinced this group of elderly men are well placed to do much whistle-blowing.

“They’re second division generals, on the margins of the defence world,” Jean Guisnel, a journalist specialising in defence and intelligence, told RFI.

“They’re what you call has-beens. Only two of them are really known: Piquemal who was radiated from the army for his far-right positions and Emmanuel de Richoufftz who wrote a few books and became very close the [Marine le Pen's] far-right National Rally party in recent years.”

The others, Guisnel says, appear on social media from time to time showing “very authoritarian positions, close to the far right; they’re conservative on religious and social issues”. They’re also “very old men, more than half are over the age of 80; they’re from a different era,” he adds.

Political analyst Jean-Yves Camus agrees that the letter itself is of little real significance. “There are no army heavyweights on the list,” he told RFI.

And while the retired generals invoked Article 36 of the Constitution which provides for the army to intervene and take control in a state of siege, Camus says the army doesn’t make that decision itself. “It’s the president who decides, as head of the armed forces. And President Macron doesn’t need people to remind him he should declare a state of emergency!”

Echoes of the 1961 putsch

Valeurs Actuelles published the letter on 21 April, exactly 60 years after a failed coup attempt by French generals to stop then-president Charles de Gaulle from allowing Algeria’s independence from France.

While some found the timing eerie, Guisnel said it was “pure marketing on the part of Valeurs Actuelles” and there was little comparison to be made between the retired generals in 2021 and those in 1961.

“Whether you agreed with their ideology or not, the officers who led the 1961 putsch were thinkers and strategists, but these retired generals are not thinking anything. They’re simply trying to pass off their views about the decline of France as being those of the army.”

What's more, the signatories remain a drop in the ocean.

“We have to keep this affair in perspective,” says Jean-Yves Camus. “6,000 signatories out of a total of 270,000 active military and civil army personnel is minuscule.”

And signing "doesn't mean you'll head out onto the streets in tanks," he adds.

Far-right sympathies

The letter received the backing of Marine Le Pen, head of the hard-right, anti-immigration National Rally. In her own open letter she wrote: “I invite you to join us in taking part in the coming battle, which is the battle of France”.

Le Pen has a solid voter base among the armed forces "around 40 to 41 percent, a bit higher than the national average," Jean-Yves Camus, a far-right specialist, explains.

But the 2022 presidential candidate, who’s still trying to make her party appear more respectable than her father’s anti-semitic, colonialist National Front, may have misjudged the situation.

“I think in this case she made a mistake because when you already have 40 percent of the military vote you don’t need to jump on this sort of open letter,” says Camus. “It gave the French the impression [she was reaching out] to people who are trying to disrupt the democratic process.”

On Wednesday prime Minister Jean Castex lambasted the way Le Pen had politically hijacked the story.

“How can people, and Madame Le Pen first and foremost, who aspire to the highest office, back an initiative that does not rule out overturning the republic?” he said. “The Leopard can’t change its spots.”

Issues remain

Whatever the extent of sympathies with the far-right, General François Lecointre denies there is far-right radicalisation within the army.

“The army is republican, it is not politicised. It is a reflection of French society,” he said.

Jean Guisnel has spoken to a number of officers who were asked to sign the letter but declined.

“They are embarrassed by the controversy,” he says. “They all said they thought this was a stupid operation because it’s trying to associate the active forces with these has-been generals. They didn’t approve of this way of expressing themselves and preferred the ballot box.”

However, several of them didn’t reject the tenet of the text and felt France was “in a mess”.

“One officer I spoke to and who doesn’t support the far-right, said there was lots of exasperation over the weakness of the state in recent affairs. With the yellow vest movement, the terror attacks and the what's seen as the poor handling of the Covid epidemic, he said he understood that some soldiers wanted to express their anger.”

The anger exists, but in future they likely won't express it quite so publicly.

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