With the nation and its army galvanized by de Gaulle’s words, the insurrection melted as quickly as it rose. Hesitant troops lined up, the generals who led the coup surrendered, and the nation sighed with relief. Evaluating the event, de Gaulle observed that what was “serious about the matter was that it was not really serious at all”.
What better way to mark the 60th anniversary of this near-tragedy turned farce than by threatening to repeat it? On April 21, the far-right magazine Current values published an open letter titled “May honor inspire again those who govern us”. Signed by twenty retired generals and a hundred high ranking officers – several still in active service – the letter castigated the “disintegrationOr the disintegration of France. Declaring “the dark hour and France in danger”, the signatories warned against the “hordes of the suburbs” inspired by Islamism and their traveling companions on the left who despise “our country, our traditions and our culture” . Citing the wave of popular unrest with the government marked by the “yellow vests” protests last year, the generals urge President Emmanuel Macron to reduce this “laxity”. If it does not, the generals conclude, the military will have no choice but to “protect the values of our civilization”.
Politicians and pundits were still in shock when, two days later, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Rally who intends to oppose Macron in next year’s presidential election, followed up on his own open letter. Applauding the generals’ “harsh but justified analysis”, Le Pen admitted that she shared their grievance. Specifically lambasting Macron’s April 18 pledge to “deconstruct the history of France” in light of colonialism and racism – the kind of thing that drives French conservatives mad – she protested a ruling class blind to mounting dangers against the native country. Nodding at the fact that France is still a republic, she called on the signatories of the generals’ letter – including the 14,000 people who had since signed their names – to join her party and help it win. “The battle of France” by democratic means.
This time, the Parisians were not waiting for the paratroopers to fall from the sky and Macron was not barricaded in the Elysee Palace behind a row of tanks. Moreover, the president had not yet publicly acknowledged the letter. Although he is a declared admirer of de Gaulle, he chose, after a three-day delay, to have his ministers speak on behalf of the government. Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly insisted that the retired generals speak only for themselves and lambasted Le Pen’s “ignorance” of the role of the military in protecting the nation and not not solicit on behalf of politicians. Shortly afterwards, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin declared Le Pen’s letter undemocratic, and found that she “has the same weakness for the noise of combat boots as her father”, the former parachutist and anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the party. Finally, the Prime Minister, Jean Castex, addressed the National Assembly, condemning the letter from the generals, but reserving particular contempt for Le Pen. Noting his recent efforts to portray his party as committed Republicans, he concluded: “Leopards cannot change places.”
The French left found the government’s response unsatisfactory. The leader of the far left party France rebellious(LFI), Jean-Luc Mélenchon, described the letter from the generals as a “call to insurrection”, denounced the weak response of the government and demanded that the signatories incur “an exemplary punishment”. Likewise, the Green Party – which rivals the LFI’s dominance on the left – was as outraged at the government as it literally was, demanding that Macron speak out and that immediate legal action be taken against the authors of “this threat of insurrection”.
On April 28 – a week after the letter’s publication – Macron finally brought in the heaviest weapon, the military leader of the armed forces, Major General François Lecointre. In an interview, he called the letter a “disgusting” act that “tarnishes” the reputation of the military. At Parly’s request, he also announced that extraordinary measures were being taken to locate and punish all servicemen who signed the letter. At the same time, the general insisted that these individuals were exceptions and that the military embraced the republic and its values.
A few voices from the traditional right taking the letter just as seriously, but in a more disturbing sense. Rachida Dati is one of the few members of the largest conservative party, The Republicans, to have spoken publicly about the letter from the generals. Former Minister of Justice under Nicolas Sarkozy, Dati now has his eyes riveted on the election of the mayor of Paris next year. Although she regretted the “ambiguous wording” that others saw as an explicit threat, Dati insisted that the generals’ letter described an undeniable “reality”. Echoing the generals’ formulation of “suburban hordes”, Dati described cities as “guerrilla” zones and appealed to “patriots who feel they no longer have a place in France”. She also deplored “the absence of authority” which, according to her, afflicted the nation – criticism taken up by another figurehead of the party, Valérie Pécresse.
Other conservatives, like the former Prime Minister of Sarkozy Jean-Pierre Raffarin, ignored the diagnosis of the letter and denounced its prescription, reminding the signatories of the letter that “the duty to obey is a military duty”.
These contradictory reactions reflect the fractured nature of the French political landscape. Like the French left, the French right, which imploded four years ago in the last presidential election, remains fragmented. On the one hand, moderates like Raffarin, who remain deeply allergic to the Lepenist worldview. In front of them are figures like Dati, who cross the already blurred line between extremists in The Republicans and the National Gathering.
More disturbing than the sight of those on the traditional Gaullist right moving towards the Lepenist right is the sight of the extremist Le Pen deftly shirking the traditionalists. She has made a sustained effort since 2012, when she inherited her father’s party, to rid it of its ideological baggage. It turned out that his father was himself part of this baggage; shortly after being shown to the door, the name of the party changed from Front National at least confrontational National Gathering. Despite being largely beaten by Macron in the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen nonetheless nearly doubled the percentage of the vote – from 18% to 34% – her father received in his 2002 presidential campaign.
Ironically, while public opinion polls show a clear majority of voters don’t want a rematch between Macron and Le Pen, they also indicate that the rematch is likely – if the vote takes place today. hui, Le Pen will finish ahead of Macron in the first. ballot and drop just four timid points – 52 to 48 percent – in the second round. The data also suggests that Le Pen’s rise was due as much to his success in ‘demonizing’ his party as it was to Macron’s failure to define himself as anything other than a dismissive technocrat.
The insurrectionary generals are a warning. If the polls are the prologue to next year’s presidential race, the Republic will face its real danger: Marine Le Pen.