Fears of a coup in France are exaggerated, but a far-right president is a real possibility

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A The recent open letter to French President Emmanuel Macron, signed by nearly 50 retired army generals to date and more than 24,000 soldiers (mainly former) soldiers, was the occasion for many members of the French left to sound the alarm, believing in a coup d’état. was either under development or a future possibility. The main signatories, led by Generals Antoine Martinez and Christian Piquemal, say the country is on the verge of collapse due to immigration and crime, as well as Islamism and the support it receives from some left. They are angry with the “cancellation of culture” and any intellectual attempt to criticize the country’s colonial past. These generals warn that if the situation worsens, their comrades on active duty may choose to step in and take control.

Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Rassemblement National party, supported the generals’ call. A survey conducted by Harris Interactive, which found that 58% of respondents agreed with the statements in the open letter, stoked further fear. It gives the impression that the far right is stronger than ever. Some political experts go so far as to say that if Macron is expected to win another term in 2022 against Le Pen, it is very possible that Le Pen will win by a small margin, causing a thunderbolt across the world.

Or maybe the whole story is a bit of an exaggeration. Here’s why.

There is nothing new about a large segment of the military that holds far-right beliefs and votes accordingly. In 2017, 41% of military votes were for Le Pen, compared to 33.9% of the total votes. Former retired officers – like Martinez, 72, and Piquemal, 80 – are haunted by memories of the 1940 French surrender to the Nazis, the defeats of the army in Indochina and Algeria, and the left-wing riots of 1968, which they consider to be the swan song of a more traditional France. Paratroopers, the Foreign Legion and Marine Infantry units, many of those who signed the open letter hail, are particularly known for their staunchly conservative patriotism.

However, the Defense Ministry quickly responded to the letter’s publication with disciplinary sanctions against signatories on active duty. There were only 18 of these officers and soldiers, an insignificant number compared to the 270,000 civilians and military personnel currently serving. General Martinez, born in Algeria, has launched the right-wing Volontaires pour la France movement and is considering running for the 2022 presidential election, although it is not certain whether he meets the necessary criteria to to present oneself. His main rallying call is the struggle for traditional French identity, which he says is threatened by “Islamization”, multiculturalism and anti-racism.

General Piquemal, who began his career in 1962, when Algeria became independent, founded a political movement called the “Circle of citizens-patriots” after his retirement. He was expelled from the Army Reserve in 2016 for participating in a prohibited demonstration against immigration to Calais. Contrary to the suggestion in some of the letter’s over-excited reports, the group of generals lack the technical capacity to stage a coup. It would require the support of active-duty soldiers, at least the passive support of a few politicians, and the complicity of a segment of the top administration of the state.

The fact that the letter appeared in the April 21 issue of the right-wing weekly Valeursuelles, on the 60th anniversary of the failed 1961 coup against General Charles de Gaulle in Algiers, added to the suggestion that the open letter heralded imminent military action. But this is not the case: the 1961 coup d’état involved between 500 and 600 of the most seasoned generals and officers in active service, and the active participation of four elite units of the so-called today special forces. A thousand officers have been sanctioned or left the army. The purge ordered by General de Gaulle against the criminal partisans of French Algeria was so strong that it left many scars and bad memories within the military community, so much so that the coup plotters will probably think about it. twice before going down to the street in arms.

However, there is much to fear when 58% of the population apparently believe the country is on the verge of collapse and Le Pen is expected to poll up to 48% in the second round of the presidential election. The Harris poll, which found that 49% of those polled would support the military seizure of power, comes at a time of mistrust of the president, who finds himself to be blamed for what he and his predecessors did. ‘have failed to achieve: stop Islamist terrorist attacks fight crime.

The Harris inquiry was released days after a radical Islamist killed a female administrator in an attack on a police station. He also followed a huge crowd of 20,000 protesting in Paris, demanding that the murderer of Sarah Halimi, an Orthodox Jewish woman, stand trial, despite a higher court ruling that he was insane and should instead be sent to a health facility. mental. The decision sparked outrage, as the murderer was known to have anti-Semitic views and shouted “Allahu Akbar” while killing his victim. Around the same time, a gang of thugs who set a police car on fire in the Paris suburbs, inflicting life-threatening burns on two policemen, received light sentences, with some of the members even being released free of charge. These events were interpreted by the Rassemblement national and the conservative right as proof that French law and French magistrates were too lenient, and that immigration and crime were linked, an idea that the left and center cabinet right rejects.

The situation in France was better assessed in a study by the progressive think tank, the Jean-Jaurès Foundation, which concluded that Marine Le Pen could win in 2022, provided she continues to become more mainstream: only 34% have a very negative opinion of her. , a record level. She would also need conservative right-wing voters to support her in the second ballot, against Macron, and for Macron’s popularity to continue to decline. In other words, if France is not ripe for a coup, the coming to power of a far-right president, elected with the votes of the conservatives, is a definite possibility.

Jean-Yves Camus is senior fellow at the Center for Analysis of the Radical Right, and director Observatoire des radicalités politiques at the Fondation Jean-Jaurès.

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