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Sunday, May 16, 2021

Explained: The outrage in France over a letter by former generals warning of ‘civil war’

France's minister in charge of the armed forces, Florence Parly, has warned that any of the letter's signatories who might still be serving in the military would be punished.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: May 5, 2021 10:56:54 am
france military men letter, france generals letter civil war, Emmanuel Macron, marine le pen, france islam, france racism, express explained, indian expressFrench President Emmanuel Macron (AP Photo/File)

A letter signed by about 1,000 service personnel in France, including some 25 retired generals, warning President Emmanuel Macron that the country is heading for a “civil war”, has earned an angry rebuke from the French government.

Writing in the right-wing Valeurs Actuelles magazine, the signatories allege that Islamists are taking over whole parts of France, and have warned that “laxist” policies would result in chaos requiring “the intervention of our comrades on active duty in a perilous mission of protection of our civilizational values”, the news agency AFP reported.

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The letter, which came out on 21st April – the 60th anniversary of a failed coup attempt against the government of World War II hero Charles de Gaulle – has been strongly criticised by the French government and Left parties, but has been endorsed by far-right politician Marine Le Pen, Macron’s most formidable challenger in next year’s presidential elections.

What the controversial letter says

The signatories warn Macron, his government and legislators of “several deadly dangers” that threaten France, such as “Islamism and the banlieue hordes”, referring to the poor suburbs around Paris that are home to large immigrant communities from former French colonies.

“The hour is grave, France is in peril,” the letter says, and blames “fanatic partisans” and “a certain anti-racism” for dividing communities. It speaks of an attempt to start a “racial war” by tearing down statues of French colonial figures and attacking aspects of French history.

The lead signatory of the letter is Christian Piquemal, a former commander who was arrested in 2016 for taking part in an anti-migrant protest.

The letter also criticises the government crackdown on the Yellow Vest protests, and accuses it of using the police as “proxy agents and scapegoats”.

It ends by saying, “It is no longer the time to procrastinate, otherwise tomorrow civil war will put an end to this growing chaos and deaths – for which you will be responsible – with numbers in the thousands”.

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How the French government reacted

Government ministers have condemned the message, with the minister in charge of the armed forces, Florence Parly, tweeting: “Two immutable principles guide the action of members of the military with regard to politics: neutrality and loyalty.”

Parly has also warned that any of the signatories who might still be serving the military would be punished under a law dictating that military personnel have to be politically neutral.

Speaking on the France Info radio network on Monday, Parly said, “For who have violated the duty of reserve, sanctions are planned, and if there are active soldiers among the signatories, I asked the chief of staff of the armed forces to apply the rules… that is to say, sanctions”.

The timing of the letter is also significant, given that it was released on the anniversary of a 1963 failed rebellion against General de Gaulle, France’s President from 1959 to 1969. The coup plot was engineered by generals who wanted to keep Algeria, then a French colony, from gaining independence.

Agnès Pannier-Runacher, the Minister of Industry, said that she “unreservedly condemned” the signatories “calling for an uprising… 60 years to the day after the generals’ putsch against General de Gaulle”.

Why the letter matters in French politics

The far-right Marine Le Pen, who was also Macron’s main challenger in the 2017 presidential elections, has backed the letter, saying in response, “I invite you to join us in taking part in the coming battle, which is the battle of France”. She did, however, say that France’s problems, in which she listed “lawless areas, crime, self-hatred and our leaders’ rejection of patriotism” can “only be solved by politics.”

Le Pen’s comments, which have been criticised by both Left and Right-wing parties, have come to the surprise of many, given her recent attempts at warming up to mainstream conservatives, such as toning down her criticism of the European Union. Even some of her supporters felt that backing the ex-generals who speak of “civil war” would not sit well with voters at large.

However, some experts say that Le Pen could have calculated that taking such a position would win her the support of a large section of French people, who believe in the letter’s content but would not publicly admit it, especially given a string of terror attacks that have hit French soil in recent years, such as the October beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty.

It remains to be seen how this would impact Macron, who although in 2017 described his candidature as “neither right nor left”, has himself adopted Right-wing positions since becoming president. He too, has blamed what he calls “social science theories imported from the United States” for harming unity in France.

Earlier in April, the French parliament’s upper house approved a controversial “anti-separatism” bill to crack down on Islamic radicalism, which envisages a range of measures, including school education reforms to ensure Muslim children do not drop out, and stricter controls on mosques and preachers.

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