Macron’s latest headache: Soldiers warning of civil war
Ministers are on the back foot after the publication of a second letter by active soldiers on the risk of “civil war” in France.,
PARIS — A number of active soldiers have warned that France risks spiraling into civil war, weeks after similar concerns were raised by a group of retired generals.
An open letter, published Sunday in the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles, warns that the decline of France due to violence, Islamism and a hatred of institutions will inevitably lead to a civil war and force the army to intervene.
The letter has put President Emmanuel Macron’s government on the defensive just as it seeks to appear strong on security amid fears over rising incivility in France.
“[The letter] is a waste of time and offers no solution,” Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire told Franceinfo Monday, accusing the soldiers of using far-right rhetoric. “There is no laissez-faire in France. Yes, there is a political Islamism that is trying to break up the country, and we are fighting it.”
The controversy emerged amid a series of attacks against police officers. One officer was killed during a drugs stop in Avignon last week and a police employee was fatally stabbed by a radicalized criminal in the town of Rambouillet last month.
Prime Minister Jean Castex was expected to meet representatives of police trade unions on Monday evening to discuss measures to better protect them.
Far right leader Marine Le Pen has been swift to support the soldiers speaking out, sparking accusations that the letters were organized by the far right to score points ahead of next year’s presidential election.
Looming civil war?
An earlier letter signed in April by a group of retired generals and soldiers warned against “hordes from the banlieues [French suburbs]” and “laxist” government policies on Islamism.
The second letter is reportedly from a group of active soldiers, who have been deployed to Mali, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic. They have also patrolled the streets of France as part of the “Sentinelle” operation following terror attacks in recent years.
Written anonymously, it’s not clear how representative the letter is of the opinions of the military’s rank and file.
“This is a professional assessment we are giving,” the soldiers write. “We have seen this decline in many countries in crisis. It precedes collapse, chaos and violence. And contrary to what [others] say, chaos and violence will not come from military rebellion but from a civil insurrection.”
General Jerome Pellistrandi, chief editor at the magazine Revue Defense Nationale, said the soldiers were right about rising violence in France, but were wrong to speak out.
“Everyone agrees that society is breaking up, it’s a known fact,” he said. “But is it up to the military to judge what is happening? Or instead should we be trying to encourage social harmony?”
“We must not deny the threat of urban violence, the terrible reality that fellow police officers face, the attacks against police stations and the murders of police officers. But it does bother me that they talk of civil war.”
Crossing the line
Some on the political left say the letters are a sign of mutiny in the army. Jean-Luc Melenchon, leader of the far-left France Unbowed party, said Sunday that the soldiers were “mutinous and cowardly” and would be purged from the army if he was elected president.
Macron’s La Republique En Marche has been struggling to strike the right note. Ministers on radio chat shows have condemned the soldiers for dangerously crossing the line between the military and politics, while, to a large extent, agreeing with them.
“We are in a time of a loss of values,” said LREM MP Jean-Michel Fauvergue. “These soldiers are talking about insecurity, repeated attacks against institutions such as the police, the army, and it’s the reality, it’s a reality that is acknowledged by politicians.”
But he insisted the warning of a looming civil war was “exaggerated.”
Macron has not responded publicly to the letter, but was filmed alongside France’s chiefs of staff during Saturday’s VE Day commemorations, interpreted as a show of unity and an attempt to end the controversy with the military.
Le Pen came out in support of the generals’ earlier letter and has defended the soldiers’ decision to speak out, saying that “it’s a cry of alarm, from people who are not pawns, sent to die in wars that are not ours.”
“Nobody reading their letter in good faith would think it was a declaration from the army to disobey orders from politicians,” she said.
But, beyond the questions over whether the letters are calling for insurrection, they have dragged the army into a political debate that is not going away.
“It’s the confiscation of the army’s identity to political ends,” said General Pellistrandi. “The army must remain neutral. This helps extremism in France, the National Rally but also the far left. It’s a sickening climate.”
The defense ministry has said that sanctions would be taken against those who signed the first letter as they had broken the army’s duty of confidentiality.