Blue, white and red French flag fleets in Nice, southeastern France, Tuesday, March 19, 2013.

France's far-right leverages generals' warning of 'civil war' ahead of elections

The letter was largely cast off as an outlandish stunt filled with baseless claims — until the far-right saw it as an opportunity.

The World

French flag fleets in Nice, southeastern France, Tuesday, March 19, 2013.

Lionel Cironneau/AP

French officials have spoken out against a controversial open letter published by 20 retired generals who warn of a potential “civil war.”

The letter was published by the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles in April.

“The hour is grave. France is in peril,” the letter’s opening sentence stated. 

It went on to argue that France is in a state of “disintegration” and the government’s failure to act against the “suburban hordes” would “scorn the country and lead to the death of thousands.” 

By suburban hordes, the authors meant predominantly Muslim immigrant communities, many of whom live in the suburbs. The generals vowed to take matters into their own hands if necessary to protect “our civilization’s values.”

Related: What is 'Islamo-leftism,' France's topic du jour? 

The letter was largely cast off as an outlandish stunt filled with baseless claims, not even worthy of a reaction from the political mainstream.

That is, until the far-right saw it as an opportunity. 

In a written response, far-right leader Marine Le Pen urged the generals to “join her in the battle for France.”

“I can say that I share their concern, I share their assessment,” Le Pen said on French TV last month. 

Related: Le Pen's niece opens school to train France's future far-right leaders

Though she stopped short of endorsing the generals’ threat of a coup — opting instead to say “this problem is fixed through politics.”

Le Pen is alluding to upcoming 2022 presidential elections, where crime, terrorism and radical extremism have already taken center stage. 

Related: Is France 'sleepwalking' into voting for the far-right?

A second letter was published earlier this month — this time by a group of anonymous soldiers — who said they supported the generals’ claims.

This has created a tough balancing act for President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party, which has been accused of pandering to the right recently to gain more votes from traditional conservatives. 

“This letter would have been insignificant, if it wasn’t for Le Pen’s political maneuvering."

French Prime Minister Jean Castex

“This letter would have been insignificant, if it wasn’t for Le Pen’s political maneuvering,” French Prime Minister Jean Castex said several days after its initial publication. 

Florence Parly, France’s Minister of Armed Forces, said those who signed it would be sanctioned for violating a law that bars them from expressing opinions publicly. 

But some say Macron’s government acted too late.

Rim-Sarah Alouane, a researcher in comparative law at the University of Toulouse, said that the Minister of Defense’s delayed response of four to five days “was quite a long time for such a sedition letter,” Alouane said.  

“It gives even more legitimacy to Marine Le pen to be elected... after this, her chances increased by 200%.”

A survey released shortly after the letter went viral found that an astonishing 58% of people supported it — though some analysts question the survey’s methodology.

Jean Yves Camus, a Paris-based political scientist studying the far-right, said he doesn’t doubt that for most people, crime and terrorism are pressing issues.

“But does that really mean that they agree to the fact that tomorrow the army could go to the streets and seize power and stage a coup? No, I do not believe that,” Camus said.

But civil war was never the real threat, said Rim-Sarah Alouane. 

“Don't take seriously the army guys who are basically just regretting the past that doesn't exist anymore — but take seriously the impact it has on politics as well as on people who don’t know any better."

Rim-Sarah Alouane, researcher in comparative law, University of Toulouse

“Don't take seriously the army guys who are basically just regretting the past that doesn't exist anymore — but take seriously the impact it has on politics as well as on people who don’t know any better,” Alouane said.

We’ve seen far-right candidates rise to power in this exact way before, she said, from Hungary to Austria and even the United States.

She fears that if Macron doesn’t do more to counter these claims head on, his party may be in for a rude awakening next year.