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On the Anniversary of a Failed Coup, France Faces Its Nationalist Faction

A contretemps started by group of military officers has reinvigorated France’s nationalist right.
May 5, 2021
On the Anniversary of a Failed Coup, France Faces Its Nationalist Faction
French leader of the French Far-right party Front National (FN) Marine Le Pen (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)

When the French awoke on the morning of April 22, 1961, the bitter odor of insurrection was in the air. The preceding night, several military regiments in French Algeria had seized control of Algiers and prepared paratroopers to jump over Paris. Led by three retired generals, the insurrectionists’ goal was to prevent the government of President Charles de Gaulle from ceding independence to the North African country France had claimed and colonized more than a century earlier—by toppling the government if necessary. De Gaulle televised his response. Seated at a table, in a crisp military uniform, he gave the speech of his life. He thundered that the laws had been flouted, the nation had been abased and its international position compromised. “And by whom?” he roared, pounding his massive fists on the table, “Alas! Alas! Alas! By men whose duty, honor, and purpose is to serve and obey.”

With the nation and its army galvanized by de Gaulle’s words, the insurrection melted as quickly as it was mounted. Wavering troops fell into line, the generals that led the putsch gave themselves up, and the nation breathed a sigh of relief. Sizing up the event, de Gaulle observed that what was “serious in the affair is 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 extreme rightwing magazine Valeurs Actuelles published an open letter titled “Let honor again inspire those who govern us.” Signed by twenty retired generals and a hundred high-ranking officers—several still in active service—the letter lambasted the “délitement” or disintegration of France. Declaring “the hour grim and France endangered,” the signatories warned against both “hordes from the suburbs” inspired by Islamism and their fellow travelers on the left who scorn “our country, our traditions, and our culture.” Citing the groundswell of popular unrest with the government marked by last year’s “yellow vest” protests, the generals urge President Emmanuel Macron to curtail this “laxity.” If he does not, the generals conclude, the military will have no choice but “to protect our civilization’s values.”

Politicians and pundits were still reeling when, two days later, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right Rassemblement National who intends to oppose Macron in next year’s presidential election, followed up with her own open letter. Applauding the generals’ “severe but warranted analysis,” Le Pen confessed that she shared their grievance. Specifically lambasting Macron’s April 18 promise to “deconstruct French history” in light of colonialism and racism—the kind of thing that drives French conservatives mad—she inveighed against a governing class blind to the dangers mounting against la patrie. Nodding to the fact that France is still a republic, she invited the signatories of the generals’ letter—including the 14,000 individuals who had since signed their names—to join her party and help her win “the battle for France” through democratic means.

This time around, Parisians were not waiting for paratroopers to drop from the sky and Macron was not barricaded in the Elysée Palace behind a row of tanks. For that matter, the president had yet to publicly acknowledge the letter. Though a professed admirer of de Gaulle, he opted, after a three-day delay, to have his ministers speak on the government’s behalf. The armed forces minister, Florence Parly, insisted the retired generals spoke only for themselves and lambasted Le Pen’s “ignorance” of the army’s role to protect the nation and not canvass on behalf of politicians. Shortly thereafter, interior minister Gérald Darmanin declaredLe Pen’s letter undemocratic, and observed that she “has the same weakness for the sound of combat boots as her father,” the former paratrooper and anti-Semite Jean-Marie Le Pen, who founded the party. Finally, the prime minister, Jean Castex, addressed the National Assembly, condemning the generals’ letter, but reserving particular scorn for Le Pen. Noting her recent efforts to depict her party as committed republicans, he concluded: “Leopards cannot change their spots.”

The French left found the government’s response unsatisfactory. The leader of the hard-left party La France Insoumise(LFI), Jean-Luc Mélenchon, described the generals’ letter as a “call to insurrection,” decried the government’s weak response, and demanded that the signatories face “exemplary punishment.” Similarly, the Green Party—which rivals the LFI’s dominance on the left—was as outraged at the government as it was at the letter, demanding that Macron speak out and immediate judicial action be taken against the authors of “this threat of insurrection.”

On April 28—one week after the letter’s publication—Macron finally brought in the heaviest gun, the military head of the armed forces, Major General François Lecointre. In an interview, he slammed the letter as a “repugnant” act that “tarnished” the army’s reputation. At Parly’s behest, he also announced that extraordinary measures were being taken to locate and punish all military personnel who signed the letter. At the same time, the general insisted these individuals were exceptions and that the military embraces the republic and its values.

A few voices on the traditional right taking the letter equally seriously, but in a more troubling sense. Rachida Dati is one of the few members of the largest conservative party, Les Républicains, to have spoken publicly about the generals’ letter. A former justice minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, Dati now has her eyes on next year’s mayoral election in Paris. Though she regretted the “ambiguous phrasing” that others understood as an explicit threat, Dati insisted the generals’ letter described an undeniable “reality.” Echoing the generals’ phrasing about the “suburban hordes,” Dati described cities as zones of “guerrilla warfare” and appealed to the “patriots who feel they no longer have a place in France.” She also lamented the “absence of authority” she believed afflicted the nation—a criticism echoed by another leading figure in the party, Valerie Pécresse.

Other conservatives, like Sarkozy’s former prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, ignored the letter’s diagnosis and denounced its prescription, reminding the letter’s signatories that “the duty to obey is a military duty.”

These conflicting reactions reflect the fissured nature of France’s political landscape. Like the French left, the French right, which imploded four years ago during the last presidential election, remains fragmented. On one side are moderates like Raffarin, who remain deeply allergic to the Lepenist worldview. Opposed to them are figures like Dati, who are crossing the already blurred line between hardliners in Les Républicains and the Rassemblement National.

More troubling than the sight of those on the traditional, Gaullist right moving toward the Lepenist right is the sight of extremist Le Pen deftly sidling up to the traditionalists. She has made a sustained effort since 2012, when she inherited the party from her father, to rid it of its ideological baggage. It turned out that her father was himself part of this baggage; soon after he was shown to the door, the party’s name changed from Front National to the less confrontational Rassemblement National. Though she was soundly defeated by Macron in the 2017 presidential election, Le Pen nevertheless nearly doubled the vote percentage—from 18 to 34 percent—that her father had received in his 2002 presidential campaign.

Paradoxically, while public opinion surveys show that a clear majority of voters do not want a rematch between Macron and Le Pen, they also indicate that the rematch is likely—if the vote were held today, Le Pen will finish ahead of Macron in the first round of voting and fall just four points shy—52 to 48 percent—in the second round. The data also suggest that Le Pen’s rise is due as much as to her success in “de-demonizing” her party as to Macron’s failure to define himself as anything but a disdainful technocrat.

The insurrectionist generals are a warning. If polls are prologue to next year’s presidential race, the Republic will face its real danger: Marine Le Pen.

Robert D. Zaretsky

Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston. His latest book is The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas.