With its reference to the threats posed by “Islamism and the hordes of suburbs“- the peri-urban ghettos of France – and a form of anti-racism which” despises our country, its traditions, its culture “, the letter was more of a foghorn than a dog’s whistle when it comes to the cultural wars that have ravaged France in the past. year. And although the retired generals did not explicitly call for a military coup, the significance of the publication date of their letter has not been lost on anyone: April 21, the 60th anniversary of the failed coup d’etat. 1961 against then-President Charles de Gaulle in response to his decision to end the war, and with it French colonial rule, in Algeria.
The letter quickly snowballed into political controversy when Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally, responded with approval and called on members of the uniformed service to support it. Le Pen has been strongly condemned across the political spectrum of France for seeking to politicize the military. But given that 58% of French people in a poll agreed with the letter’s assessment of the country’s woes, it was an opportunity for Le Pen, who is almost guaranteed a place in the second round. of the French presidential election next year, to position itself once. again as an intrepid iconoclast ready to overthrow the establishment consensus.
But the story was not yet over. When it later emerged that at least 18 French soldiers on active duty were among the other signatories of the letter, the episode became, if not a crisis in its own right, at least a matter of concern for civil relations. – French soldiers. The military was quick to announce that it would seek to identify and sanction those in the ranks who had endorsed what many in France saw as a not-so-subtle call for insurgency.
So far, so good. Civilian control over the army is sacrosanct in any democracy, but especially in France, where the providential man which emerges, often from the military, at a time of nation’s need is a deeply rooted historical trope.
It is only when we reduce the objective of a vision centered on France to a global vision that a wrinkle is introduced into this tale of civilian leaders rooting out a particular military state of mind that sees instability. disorder of a democracy normally functioning as an existential threat to the nation.
Just two days after the letter’s publication, and as the fallout still spread, French President Emmanuel Macron flew to Chad to attend Idriss Deby’s funeral. The longtime Chadian autocrat had died on the battlefield the week before, battling the latest in a series of armed insurgencies that took place during his 31 years in power.
Deby himself came to power thanks to an armed rebellion that overthrew Hissène Habré, the brutal dictator who was convicted in 2016 of crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture. While he may have turned out to be less brutal than Habré, Deby was not a Democrat. Nonetheless, on several occasions, the French military intervened on his behalf to help stave off the armed insurgencies that threatened his reign, the last in 2019.
To be clear, none of these uprisings promised to bring democracy to Chad. But that was not the reason for France’s unwavering support for Deby. The explanation lies rather in the cynical calculation which often pushes the French – but also the Americans – to support repressive leaders and governments in regions of strategic importance, a calculation which values stability rather than democracy. It is the same calculation that leads France to sell 30 Rafale fighter jets to Egypt, as has just been revealed this week, despite the brutal dictatorship established there under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi; again, Washington has no lessons to teach Paris in this regard.
Recent events highlight the double standard at the heart of France’s engagement in Africa: what is perfectly acceptable in Chad is not so in France.
Deby’s importance as a security partner for Paris was amplified by the role played by Chadian troops in France’s vast counterterrorism and counterinsurgency operations in West Africa, which stemmed from of the 2013 French intervention to stave off an Islamist insurgency in northern Mali. Deby’s soldiers, hardened by their campaigns against national insurgencies, quickly gained a reputation for efficiency in the ruthless terrain of northern Mali. This was a stroke of luck for French military planners eager to lighten France’s military footprint by outsourcing the fighting as much as possible to local partners.
Chadian fighters are also supporting the G-5 Sahel security bloc, an initiative funded by France, still hoping to bring down its own forces in the Sahel, which number more than 5,000 yet. Deby’s troops also have played a leading role in the fight against Boko Haram in 2015, when the Nigerian group began to expand throughout the Lake Chad region.
The circumstances surrounding Deby’s death, not to mention the widely acknowledged failure of France’s efforts to improve security in the Sahel, clearly show what most Chadians, like most Egyptians, have known for decades: fragile; it is illusory.
Nonetheless, as Macron’s government and his political allies in Paris condemned a vague and veiled threat to civilian control over the military in France, he attended Deby’s funeral alongside Mahamat Idriss Deby, the late president’s son and now head of a “Transitional Council” appointed by the Chadian army in such total disregard for the Chadian constitution that it can easily be described as a coup.
France subsequently reconsidered its support for the transitional arrangement proposed by the Chadian army, but it does not appear to have had much impact on developments in N’Djaména.
The important thing is not so much that France, or the United States, should conduct their foreign policy based solely on respect for human rights and democracy. Governments – and even analysts – don’t have the luxury of always being right the way defense organizations do. They must weigh multiple and sometimes competing actions that often require disorderly compromises that are difficult to defend, whether morally or ethically. But in such cases, these compromises should bear fruit in terms of the goals and interests they are supposed to guarantee.
Another problem is linked to the mismatch between the values and ideals that France and the United States defend in theory and the priorities they pursue in practice. This hypocrisy is not lost on local people, nor does it play into the larger narrative of the West’s systemic competition with illiberal powers like China and Russia, as illustrated by the emphasis by US President Joe Biden on a global battle between democracy and authoritarianism.
Equally disturbing is the tendency of the actions of any nation abroad to re-enter the body politic of the country. This has been widely publicized in the United States over the past year or so, as incidents of militarized policing in response to the Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted how the US War on Terror – and in particular its counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan – have affected its approach to national politics. law enforcement and crowd control.
The juxtaposition of recent events in Paris and N’Djamena highlights the double standard at the heart of France’s engagement in Africa, in which democratic values are compromised in the name of stability: which is perfectly acceptable in Chad. should not be supported in France. The letter from the retired generals, however, and the response to it reflected in French opinion polls demonstrate that this same kind of compromise can be a powerful temptation with us as well.
Judah Grunstein is the editor of World Politics Review. His WPR column appears every other Wednesday. You can follow him on Twitter @Judah_Grunstein.