Almost half of French people support the military intervening in the country’s affairs following a letter by military officers saying they would take up arms to defend France against ‘suburban hordes.’
A letter published by hundreds of former military officials in France has become a slow-burn that is increasingly registering on the country's political radar.
The open letter, originally published on April 21 in the far-right French magazine Valeurs Actuelles warns of "suburban hordes" overrunning the country.
Twenty retired generals, a hundred senior officers and more than a thousand soldiers warned of the "disintegration" of France, which if not stemmed, would result in the "intervention of our active comrades in a perilous mission of protecting our civilisational values."
France's political establishment initially ignored it. For days there was silence from the Elysee Palace, the residence of France's beleaguered President Emmanuel Macron.
Since the letter was published, an additional 8,000 soldiers have signed it, exposing deep tensions in the French military.
Worryingly for Macron, in a poll following the letter's publication, 58 percent of French people showed support for the soldiers who signed the petition.
When asked whether the military should intervene in politics, even without the government's request, French people were divided, with 49 percent saying the army should intervene.
A further 73 percent of respondents believe that the country is crumbling, and 84 percent think there is increasing violence in the country.
Against the deep political malaise in the country, the far-right leader Marine Le Pen, currently ahead in the 2022 presidential polls, was one of the first politicians to capitalise on the letter by French military officials urging them to join in the "battle for France."
The military speaks
The matter, however, could no longer be ignored by France's establishment.
In an interview with the French paper Le Parisien, France's Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, General Francois Lecointre condemned the letter and its signatories, effectively his men.
Lecointre said the letter "absolutely revolts me", adding that "it is an unacceptable attempt to manipulate the military."
The authors of the open letter also strategically published it to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the 'Generals' putsch' and attempted coup d'etat against the then French President Charles de Gaulle in 1961.
It was a last-ditch attempt by powerful elements in the French army to stop de Gaulle, a former military man who himself had come to power in May 1958 on the back of a coup d'etat, from abandoning the French occupation of Algeria.
Four retired generals organised the failed 1961 coup attempt. Some of the retired military men who co-signed the latest letter no doubt had a stark warning for France's current political establishment.
French politicians have attempted to put on a brave face in light of the current situation.
Twelve French politicians on the political left are petitioning the public prosecutor in Paris, Remi Heitz, arguing that the letter could constitute a criminal offence. They warned that the letter called "for a takeover of the military in France. It is a call for a military insurrection that we take as a serious threat to our Republic."
"This text uses the vocabulary of the extreme right and openly utters threats against the republican form of the State," said the French politicians adding that this "is the first time since the putsch of the generals of Algiers in 1961, that the generals call for an uprising of this order."
Not all French politicians have spoken out against the letter which warns against the "mortal danger" the country faces from Islam, a "certain anti-racism" and amongst other things "decolonial theories."
'We cannot blame the military'
A former French military officer turned politician for the right-wing The Republican party, Henri Leroy, called the letter "a call for help addressed to the government, to parliamentarians, and which we can understand.
Leroy urged politicians and the public to see the letter, which has a veiled threat for a call to arms to "try to understand it", and the French ministers should receive the soldiers instead of sanctioning them.
France's former Defense Minister, from 2011 to 2012, and ex-member of a neo-fascist organisation called the Occident, Gerard Longuet, nonchalantly told the French press, "We cannot blame the military for thinking about the Nation and defending it. This is what makes them great."
Against this backdrop, many are questioning how serious the threat of the far-right is within the military.
The Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Lecointre, has been quick to dismiss the notion that the military has a far-right problem.
Recently a French publication conducted an investigation that found at least 50 soldiers in the French army displaying nostalgia for the German Third Reich. The government has been quick to say that they are isolated incidents unrepresentative of the wider army.
A study by the French think tank Fondation Jean-Jaures, however, has found that as many as 4 in 10 soldiers vote for right-wing parties, higher on average than the national population.
With the study conducted in 2019, the numbers could well be higher now, given the increasing political polarisation in France.
The study found that municipalities with a strong military presence saw significantly higher voting shares for far-right parties such as those of Le Pen, with many soldiers believing that they are in the "front line to fight against the Islamist enemy."
With France heading to the polls in 2022, Macron's disapproval ratings calcifying at around 60 percent, an increasingly desperate situation is emerging where the far-right Le Pen is on the ascendency.
Even as Macron has sought to show that he is tough on Muslims and Islam, he seems to increasingly be doing Le Pen’s work and mainstreaming a discourse without any of the political dividends.
However, segments of France's military, with the sympathetic aid of some far-right politicians, seem ready to fill the presidential-sized void afflicting the country.