On 21 April 1961 France’s most senior generals staged a putsch in French Algiers, still an integral part of France. The military coup was in reaction to the policies of the president of the Republic, General de Gaulle, and his belated decision to abandon Algeria to independence. The generals felt this betrayed their honour and that of their fallen comrades after seven years of a bloody war against Algerian ‘terrorists’ to keep Algeria French.
Fast forward sixty years to 21 April 2021. Twenty retired generals (some four-star), a hundred mostly retired senior officers and a thousand military personnel signed a chilling letter in the right-wing French weekly Valeurs actuelles addressed to the President of the Republic, the government and parliamentarians. It appealed for ‘honour to be restored to our rulers’ and warned of a ‘disintegration’ of French society as a result of government policy: ‘… there is no time for prevarication, if not, tomorrow civil war will put an end to the mounting chaos and the deaths, whose responsibility will be yours, will be counted in their thousands.’ According to the organiser of the letter the true number of signatories is 10,000.
This is more than just about France’s sluggish internal struggle against Islamic terrorism. It is strident criticism of current French ‘values’ and what it claims is the growing ‘laxism’ of the French political class that will inexorably lead to ‘explosion’. Railing against ‘anti-racist’ values, whose ‘sole aim is to create on our soil ill-feeling, even hatred between communities’, it fulminates against the ‘banlieues mobs’ who have created no-go areas where dogma alien to France’s constitution flourishes. It is chillingly evocative, in its rebuke of the political class, of General Challe’s radio broadcast from Algiers following the 1961 coup.
At first there was silence by French authorities, partly out of embarrassment that such a state of affairs should occur in an advanced democracy. But goaded by the far left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon (no stranger himself to threatening insurrection) the minister of defence, Florence Parly, has now publicly criticised the letter and the leader of the Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen, who called for the signatories to join her movement. Macron has said nothing, despite being the titular head of the armed forces. His stature amongst the military suffered badly in 2017 when the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Pierre de Villiers, resigned in fury at the president’s double-dealing on defence spending. De Villiers has since become an extremely popular media figure penning a number of books on the secrets of leadership and is touted as a potential candidate against Macron for the presidentials. Coincidentally, or not, de Villiers’ brother, the right-wing politician, Philippe, wrote a column in Valeurs actuelles the week before entitled: ‘I call for insurrection’.
This whole episode may come to nothing. Were this Britain or another advanced democracy, the issue would have been front page news for weeks with rapid and stringent reprisals for the signatories. But in France dealing with the military is a prickly issue. Since the nineteenth century the French army is expected to stay silent – la grande muette – precisely because of its erstwhile interventionist role in French politics; first with Napoleon Bonaparte, then in June 1848, and then with his nephew Napoleon III. But here is the problem. In a Harris Interactive opinion poll commissioned after publication, 58 per cent of respondents said they agreed with the sentiments expressed in the letter. Moreover, notwithstanding its commitment to political silence, French defence forces have participated in several insurrections in the latter half of the twentieth century: the so-called ‘coup d’etat of 13 May’ 1958 when the military strong-armed France’s political executive to recall General de Gaulle; the failed 1961 putsch des généraux. Conversely, the army is also regarded as a potential safeguard of last resort for the political regime in the event of insurrection. In 1968 at the height of the riots and general strike, De Gaulle was secretly helicoptered to Baden Baden in Germany to enquire of the general commanding the French Army on the Rhine whether in the final resort he would march into France to take back control. Significantly the signatories warn that when French society does finally break down politicians will call on the army to save the day and it will be their serving colleagues who will be on the front-line. Their letter implies that that support may not be forthcoming.
The difference between the failed 1961 putsch and today’s letter is that French authorities had good intelligence prior to the generals’ insurrection and were able to prepare for it. Today’s episode has taken the political authorities by surprise. There will be no coup d’etat, but the political ramifications will be far-reaching, especially as a recent study showed some 40 per cent of the French military were already intending to vote for the Rassemblement National. With the Chief of the Defence Staff now stating that any serving military personnel will be court martialled, the disciplinary process will last until the 2022 presidentials, and the surrounding debate on the state of France is likely to favour Marine Le Pen.
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