In 1958, nationalist elements of the French military revolted against the Fourth Republic in an attempt to prevent the separation of French Algeria. Leaders of the uprising helped install retired general Charles de Gaulle, the leader of Free France during the Second World War, as president of the newly-formed Fifth Republic. When de Gaulle forfeited his mandate and moved to grant independence to Algeria a few years later, some of the same elements attempted another coup. While the officers behind the insurrection were arrested, they were eventually granted amnesty and even allowed to return to service.
Earlier this month, a group of 20 retired French generals and hundreds of currently-serving officers delivered their own ultimatum to the administration of President Emmanuel Macron. The generals condemned what they described as existential threats to the nation, such as Islamic separatism and disrespect for French heritage. And while they promised to support policies that they believed would ensure France’s survival, they also predicted that the government’s inaction would force the military to step in. “Return to honor,” the officers’ open letter concluded. Macron, whose approval rating sits at 37 percent as of this month, has yet to issue a formal response to the ultimatum.
The French government is facing opposition on the electoral front as well. A recent poll put nationalist candidate Marine Le Pen within just a few points of Macron. Le Pen is the leader of the right-wing National Rally party, formerly known as the National Front, and a member of the French parliament. She ran for President in 2012, earning approximately 17 percent of the vote. In 2017, she ran again and advanced to the second round of the election, ultimately losing to Macron with 34.2 percent of the vote.
Since 2017, Le Pen has been a consistent critic of the Macron administration for its alleged failure to address Islamic extremism, mass immigration, and multiculturalism – as has her niece Marion, who has been involved in a project to unify conservative and nationalist parties in France. One notable exception occurred during a debate in February between Le Pen and Gerald Darmanin, Macron’s interior minister. After growing public pressure due to rising radicalism among Muslims in France had forced Macron to propose a series of laws aimed at reducing Islamic separatism, Le Pen made an uncharacteristic criticism of his administration on religious freedom grounds. In turn, Darmanin attacked Le Pen from the right, calling her “not tough enough” and accusing her of denying that Islam was a problem.
As of now, Le Pen is still projected to lose to Macron in 2022. But if frustration over pandemic lockdowns and cultural conflict continues to grow, the two could be on equal footing by next spring. With France being one of the few nations of Western Europe that has a significant right-wing youth movement, dissatisfaction with the center-left Macron could be part of a generational shift right. And should the military officers’ ultimatum resonate among the French armed forces, the Macron administration itself may be forced to take more assertive measures in defense of France’s national identity.