Late last month, a group of 20 retired French generals and 1,000 active and retired servicemen warned in an open letter to President Macron that the country was headed towards civil war. In particular, the ex-military members highlighted Islam, anti-racist ideology, and economic stagnation.
The letter denounces “Islamism and the hordes [of Muslims] in France’s ghettos,” and critiques the pervasive influence of ‘woke’ ideology in French universities, which the French right sees as an undesirable American export. Finally, the letter rebukes President Macron’s response to the gilet-jaunes (Yellow Vests) movement. Since 2018, the Yellow Vests have rallied against rising consumer prices, stagnant working-class wages, and economic inequality.
The generals concluded the letter by calling for the direct intervention of armed forces in French society if the elected government could not protect France’s “civilizational values.”
Alarmingly, the generals’ message, which arguably hinted at a coup, has received some public support. The right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles found that 64% of 1,600 survey respondents had heard of the generals’ manifesto; 58% approved. A subsequent study published by La Chaîne Info found that 45% of the French public sees an imminent civil war, 49% approve of the army intervening to maintain order even in the absence of authorization, and 73% think French society is falling apart. For her part, Marine le Pen, the leader of the far-right party, Front National, expressed support for the generals’ manifesto.
How did France get here?
In recent years, a combination of factors has elevated and legitimized certain right-wing fears in French society.
Starting with the Charlie Hebdo mass shooting in January 2015, France has been under constant attack by reactionary Islamist terrorists. In the years since, ISIS and al-Qaeda have claimed responsibility for attacks ranging from mass bombings of Paris night life to the Bastille Day Massacre to the murder of an 84-year old priest during a church service. These attacks recently culminated in a horrific incident when a young Islamist terrorist beheaded a French schoolteacher in the middle of Paris.
This terrorism coincides with increasing economic insecurity over wage stagnation; notably, the economically populist Yellow Vest movement has at least 66% approval among the public. The French far-right has been able to capitalize on these forces and trends. Marine le Pen is now polling above the highly unpopular President Macron, although it is still likely that le Pen will lose in a second-round vote.
What lessons can we learn from what’s happening in France?
The recent events underscore the allure of using extra-constitutional means to protect values that a society holds dear, even in well-established democracies like France. And the generals’ letter isn’t the only instance of this troubling trend recently. Back in February, Macron signed a law that restricted freedom of religion in the name of protecting laïcité, or the French ideal of secularism. Before that, in 2004, hijabs, crucifixes, yarmulkes, and other religious symbols were banned from public schools.
What’s happening in France serves as a stark reminder that even though the problems and dangers facing French society are very real, we must resist the temptation to undermine the rule of law and governmental checks and balances in our attempts to address them.