Call of former generals indicates deep divisions in French society

When he first appeared in the dark military blog Last month, a resounding call to arms by retired French generals that nearly called for a coup made France appear to be on the brink of civil war.

“France is in peril,” reads the declaration which was subsequently signed by hundreds of army retirees and at least 18 active soldiers. He condemned “laxity”, Islamism and “the hordes” on the outskirts of the country’s cities, which any French reader understands as immigrants.

Republished in the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the putsch of the failed generals against President Charles de Gaulle in 1961, the statement was initially rejected by the army command as being nostalgic ramblings of elderly reactionaries.

But the public endorsement of far-right leader Marine Le Pen – who said it was the duty of French patriots to “stand up” to save the country – sparked convictions of politicians and the defense ministry and a pledge to punish serving 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 the state of the military, seen as professional, politically neutral and highly unlikely to organize. a coup. state – something unheard of in Western Europe since the foiled coup in Spain in 1981.

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

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

Dominique Trinquand, a former general and now commentator who led France’s military mission to the UN, agrees. “It doesn’t matter to the military because those who signed it are not in the military today, or very few of them,” he said, noting that prosecutors decided not to prosecute the case for having committed a criminal offense.

He also dismissed the importance of Le Pen’s call for ex-generals to join his far-right Rassemblement National party, shown by opinion polls as the main national opposition to President Emmanuel Macron. “What is 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 ensured the security of Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, when the party was called Front National. And among the signatories was Christian Piquemal, former head of the French Foreign Legion, who was forced to withdraw completely from the military reserve five years ago for participating in an illegal demonstration against immigrants in Calais.

The former officers, commentators said, were unlikely to unleash a coup by an apolitical army and increasingly reflecting France’s ethnic diversity, but their statement and the way it resonated in politics suggested that their concerns were widely shared in society.

Jean-Pierre Fabre-Bernadac: the former infantry and gendarmerie officer ran security for Jean-Marie Le Pen. © France Soir

“Despite the very controversial remarks,” said Trinquand, “the concern about law and order and the radical Islamists is a feeling shared by a good part of the French”.

According to a survey carried out after the outbreak of the controversy, 58% of French voters – many of them on the left – supported the soldiers who signed the declaration. An extraordinary percentage of 74% believed that French society was collapsing and no less than 45% believed that France “was going to have a civil war soon”.

Jean-Daniel Lévy, Managing Director of Harris Interactive, who conducted the poll, said: “Overall, the French share the same views as those expressed by the generals.

Such is the heated political situation in which the two main contenders for next year’s French presidential election are currently the incumbent Macron – who was elected four years ago saying he would be “neither on the right nor on the left ”, but has since progressed steadily to the right in its stands on Islamism and immigration – and Le Pen.

For Camus, the institution most severely tested is not the army which is waging a war against the jihadists in the Sahel, but the besieged national police in his country, which has tried to suppress the national demonstrations of the anti -government. yellow vests protesters for over a year from 2018 and is still at the forefront of the battles against crime, drugs and terrorism.

“I think the real topic in the coming months will be the police,” Camus said. There was a simmering anger in the force over the low wages and poor facilities, he said, “and all for the risk of being killed by a petty drug dealer in broad daylight.”

Two weeks ago, a policewoman was killed by a Tunisian Islamist who slit her throat at the entrance to a police station in Rambouillet, the latest in a series of attacks including a murder with several knives at the headquarters from the police teacher outside his school last year by a Chechen Islamist refugee.

In April, police demonstrated for what they see as lenient treatment by the courts of five young people incarcerated for assaulting 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 raid and from which the assailant escaped, prompting calls for a march of protest this weekend by the police themselves.

The retired French general Christian Piquemal during a demonstration by far-right activists and supporters of PEGIDA (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West) © Michel Spingler / AP

The researchers claim that support for Le Pen in the military has reached just over 40%, which is not far from the level of the general population given the far-right support among young people and the relative youth of active soldiers. In the police, support exceeds 50%.

Gerald Darmanin, the interior minister appointed by Macron last year to crack down on crime and terrorism, did not seem to 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 likening the police instantly to military heroes.

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

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