In Depth

Is Emmanuel Macron losing control of the French military?

Thousands of soldiers sign letter claiming nation is on brink of civil war following ‘surrender to Islamists’

Emmanuel Macron is facing a mutiny within his armed forces as thousands of serving French military personnel publicly accuse him of leading the country to the brink of a civil war with Islamists.

The military rebels launched the verbal attack on their president in a letter that “has been swiftly endorsed by the leader of the nationalist opposition”, The Times reports. The letter was published on Sunday by Valeurs Actuelles, a right-wing magazine that published a similarly “extraordinary warning” from hundreds of mostly retired officers just weeks ago, the newspaper adds.

The former officers warned that Macron might face a military coup unless he failed to halt “suburban hordes” of Muslims overrunning France. 

Revolt in the ranks

The government has “dismissed” the publication of the latest letter as another “manoeuvre by far-right sympathisers” to engineer support for Marine Le Pen, The Times reports. The National Rally leader is polling within ten points of Macron in a second-round run-off ahead of national elections next year.

While similar in tone to the letter published in Valeurs Actuelles last month, the second missive “appears to have been written by an unknown number of younger troops still in active service”, France 24 reports.

Addressed to Macron and his cabinet, the letter says that “it is not a question of extending your mandates or conquering others” but rather “about the survival of our country, the survival of your country”.

Describing themselves as a “generation of fire”, the authors write that their fallen comrades “have offered up their lives to destroy the Islamism that you have made concessions to on our soil”.

The signatories give “no indication of rank or their units”, says The Times, but claim that many among them have performed active duty in France’s operations in Africa and Afghanistan, and in the Sentinelle security operation, a domestic military presence formed in January 2015 following a string of terrorist attacks on French soil.

To some religious minorities, “France means nothing but an object of sarcasm, contempt or even hatred”, says the letter, which Valeurs Actuelles says has been signed by 2,000 young service people and about 230,000 other people online.

 But “if a civil war breaks out, the military will maintain order on its own soil... civil war is brewing in France and you know it perfectly well”, the letter continues.

‘Is this courage?’

Senior serving members of the armed forces have condemned the letter, with a high-ranking officer in military headquarters telling AFP that disciplinary measures would be taken if the signatories were identified.

“A firm reminder will be made by the command on the respect of duty,” said the unnamed officer. “One can have personal convictions but the armed forces are apolitical and have absolute loyalty to the elected president. If you feel bad, you can leave the army with a clean conscience.”

Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, a close ally of Macron, has accused the signatories of lacking the “courage” to voice their opinions publicly. “I believe that when you are in the military you don’t do this kind of thing in hiding,” he told BFM Television. “These people are anonymous. Is this courage? To be anonymous?”

Defence Minister Florence Parly, another close ally of the president, has described the latest letter as a “crude political scheme”. Parly told BFM that “it uses all the rhetoric, the vocabulary, the tone, the references which are those of the extreme right”.

Unsurprisingly given those references, Le Pen has “voiced sympathy for the unnamed signatories”. Speaking at a campaign stop on Monday ahead of next month’s regional elections, the National Rally leader promised that if elected president, she would “take urgent, rapid, effective measures to restore authority in those lawless zones that are the seat of Islamist and criminal separatism”.

Clash of values

The letter has been published amid a “febrile political atmosphere ahead of 2022 elections”, says France 24. Political commentators have noted that “Macron has tacked to the right in recent months”, with most polls suggesting that Le Pen is his only serious competition come next year’s vote, the broadcaster adds.

Macron was reportedly “taken aback by polls last month showing strong public support for the views aired in the first letter”, says The Times. A total of 58% of respondents said they backed the retired generals, with 73% agreeing that “France is disintegrating”.

John Keiger, a former professor of French history at the University of Cambridge, argues that the letters are “about more than just about France’s sluggish internal struggle against Islamic terrorism”.

In an article for The Spectator, Keiger writes that had such a letter been published in the UK, “the issue would be front-page news for weeks, with rapid and stringent reprisals for the signatories”. But the French military rebels are also reflecting wider concerns about an alleged “growing ‘laxism’ of the French political class that will inexorably lead to ‘explosion’”.

“The surrounding debate on the state of France is likely to favour” Le Pen, adds Keiger, who predicts “there will be no coup d’etat, but the political ramifications will be far-reaching”.

The French military has a historically tempestuous relationship with the government, as was noted by the authors of the first letter, which was published in Valeurs Actuelles on 21 April - the 60th anniversary of a failed coup d’état known as the Algiers putsch.

Days after the attempted overthrow, then president Charles de Gaulle appeared on television in full WWII-era military dress and described the plotters as a “partisan, ambitious and fanatical” group led by “a quartet of retired generals”. Famously, he ended: “Frenchwomen, Frenchmen! Help me!” 

Macron has not taken such extreme measures to suppress the authors of the two new letters. However, the chief of the French Defence Staff, General Francois Lecointre, has “said that those who signed it would face punishments ranging from forced full retirement to disciplinary action”, France 24 says.

Yet despite those threats, the French president will be conscious that he also needs to avoid alienating voters sympathetic to the military rebels - or risk political annihilation in the 2022 election.

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