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4 May 2021updated 22 Jul 2021 1:26pm

Will the threat of a military putsch strengthen France’s far-right?

A letter signed by retired military officers warning of “civil war” may be a hindrance to Marine Le Pen.

By Ido Vock

“The Grande Muette is not blind.” So said Jean-Pierre Fabre-Bernadac, a retired French army captain, a week before thousands of former soldiers and at least 18 serving military personnel signed an explosive open letter threatening a coup.

Fabre-Bernadac’s use of the 19th century nickname for the army, meaning “the great mute”, refers to the 170 year-long pact between France’s military and civilian authorities, according to which the army avoids politics completely. By invoking it, the captain suggested that the contemporary army, in his view at least, was prepared to undermine that understanding. 

The letter, published in the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles, contains a number of incendiary claims. It argues that “hateful and fanatical” anti-racists who “despise our country, its traditions and its traditions … want racial war”. It warns that Islamists and “the hordes of the banlieues” want to separate parts of France from the constitutional order. 

France’s rulers, the letter warns, “must find the courage needed to eradicate these dangers”. Politicians brave enough to do so will be supported. But if nothing is done, it will ultimately cause “an explosion and the intervention of our active [military] comrades in the perilous mission of protecting our civilisational values”. Failure to act would mean nothing less than “civil war”. 

The apocalyptic message is unmistakable: France faces an existential threat from Islamism, which seeks to undermine its legal and constitutional order. If the civilian authorities do not respond with appropriate firmness, the army is prepared to stage a coup to prevent outright war. 

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Adding to the threat was the fact that the letter was published on the 60th anniversary of a failed 1961 military putsch against Charles de Gaulle’s government, intended to keep Algeria French. The missive was co-signed by thousands of former military officials, many of them with experience in far-right politics, including Fabre-Bernadac and Antoine Martinez, a former air force official associated with the group “Volunteers for France”, which bemoans the “Africanisation of Europe”. 

The response from the army’s leadership, which accepts the principle of absolute civilian control of the military, has been quick and unequivocal. General François Lecointre announced on 28 April that the 18 signatories still active within the army would face military tribunals which could see them removed from service. 

The letter has also been severely condemned by Emmanuel Macron’s government, whose ministers have characterised it as an unacceptable attempt by retired and unelected army officials to influence elected civilian authorities. 

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Marine Le Pen, the far-right leader viewed as Macron’s strongest opponent for next year’s presidential elections, has on the contrary offered her full support to the signatories, inviting them to “join my fight … for France”. 

Macron’s Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin, said that “Le Pen has kept the taste for the sound of boots from her father”, a reference to Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former soldier who founded the National Rally party. (Darmanin does not have a reputation for going easy on security issues; in a February debate, he accused Le Pen of having an attitude to Islamism that was “almost a bit soft”.)

Complicating the picture is the publication of a new poll showing that 58 per cent of French people agreed with the analysis put forward in the column, and 49 per cent would support the army intervening in politics. 

[See also: Will France’s anti-Marine Le Pen ‘republican front’ hold?]

The letter puts both Macron and Le Pen in a complex position. For the former, it highlights both the threat of an organised military coup (extremely unlikely to be organised and even less to succeed) and of right-wing militancy or terrorism (more likely). On the flip side, its resonance with voters may also be seen as electoral justification for his government’s hard-right turn on matters of identity and security. 

Le Pen’s support for the signatories likewise exposes the uneasy balance struck between her party’s far-right roots – which has always drawn support among sections of the army – and her dédiabolisation strategy of broadening her appeal among voters, which pitches the National Rally party as mainstream, moderate and wedded to democratic principles. Support for a letter by unelected former army officers threatening a military coup may undermine the credibility of that argument.

Relatedly, the incident may be seized upon by Macron’s camp to assure apathetic left-wing voters that even if they do not like the president’s policies, he is nonetheless wholly committed to the democratic order in a way that Le Pen is not. 

Either way, the episode highlights the perception that the stakes in French politics have become increasingly existential – for both sides. 

[See also: After 150 years, the legacy of the Commune continues to divide France]