Of Gun Boats and Generals

France Mise à Jours 2, 13 May

It’s been quite a fortnight in France, what with Royal Navy warships racing to protect Jersey, an English island off the Channel, closer to France than the UK, whose sole previous notoriety was for stashing your dough from the taxman, the island finding itself under attack by a motley flotilla of pissed-off French fisherman, outraged by the Johnson government’s failure to comply with the agreement they themselves signed on Christmas Day last year. So threats of war it was for a few days’ time, threats no one took too seriously except the French minister who threatened to cut off electricity to the Anglo-enclave. No surprise there, and no surprise either that once the polls were closed on last Thursday in the UK, the warships went home. Their job was to shake John Bull out of his Brexit doldrums with a reason to vote Tory, those protectors of all things quintessentially Brit, most especially the hatred of François Forreigner, who was insisting on his legal share of happy British fish. A cunning stunt, as they say on the other side of the channel.

But enough of that seaside English comedy, which the second act revealed was really taking place in Hartlepool and not in Jersey at all. In France, the Palais Elysées dreamed of an orderly, controlled « reopening of society » on the 3rd and 19th of May and the 19th of June and so on to infinity unless the virus strikes back, only to discover that things are moving faster than they ever planned. We’re in the Merry Month of May, when politics and life intertwine like new ivy climbing the wall : the first anniversary of the French Black Lives Matters demos is not far off and somewhere on the horizon, not yet visible to the ordinary deskbound commentator, Gilets Jaunes or their successors are massing. The President is trying to reinvent himself as a Populist Centrist Corporatist Napoléonist but with limited success. Life is elsewhere, as they say, and Macron can only send his subalterns out to react. Real life is a disaster for politicians, which is another reason they love confinement so much. They get to do all the talking.  

In the last twenty days, anonymous members of the military have published not one but two letters alleging that France is on the brink of civil war. Sanctionable offenses, timed for the big anniversaries of the general’s plot against DeGaulle and the 200th anniversary of Napoléon’s death. A call to war, civil war no less. A policeman was murdered in Avignon during a drug bust, and national gendarmes are said to be variously depressed and demanding new powers against the citizenry. For some, the country is spinning out of control. Fisherman, our crustacean comrades, have been demonstrating up and down the coast, and not just against the Brits. Patents on covid medicines were lifted in the European Parliament despite months of opposition by those great populist parties En Marche and Rassemblement National, who would rather run a protection racket for Big Pharma.It was a change said to be fait accompli once Biden made his move in the U.S., even if the victory is largely symbolic : the WHO has to approve the measure, and all member countries must agree for that to happen.  

The only way for Mise à Jours France to keep up on a regular basis is to tackle one story at a time, even if they are in fact, interwoven, unfolding in the same country and thus creating a cumulative effect. La tribune des militaires comes first, a public pronouncement reprinted this Monday in the magazine Valeurs Actuelles, said to be written by active military figures, all of whom chose to remain anonymous while singing the Marseillaise at the top of their lungs. Their letter starts with a rather sanguine stanza from the national anthem. 

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Referring to the authors of the first communique, they wrote, ‘These are people who fought against France’s enemies, and you have treated them like traitors when the only thing they’ve done wrong is to love their country and to weep for its obvious decline.’

Is this indeed a rebellion or mere grumbling from the barracks ? Your take defines your stance politically. The Macronie, as insiders refer to the world of courtiers and ministers that surround the president, were slow on the take in late April, surprised by retired and semi-retired military figures. It fell to Jean-Luc Mélenchon and France Insoumise to haul the issue to court. Public pronouncements on political matters by active military are forbidden by the French constitution. The administration reacted much more quickly this time.  

It isn’t hard to make a crude sense of the politics and intentions involved. The optics, to employ en-vogue parlance, play out between militaires, pols and press. The military always grumbles about the mess democracy makes; are we supposed to take it seriously this time ? DeGaulle weathered assassination attempts and generals fomenting uprisings over Algerian independence. He shrugged it off in a phrase : ‘Ce qui est grave dans cette affaire, c’est qu’elle est sans importance.’

Macron’s government of technocrats, headed by a banker elected on the promise of turning France into Start-Up Nation but now busy feeling in the dark for votes the old fashioned populist way, has taken the opposite tack : this new, second blast from military hierarchy is being taken quite seriously, the administration accusing the anonymous soldiers of being cowards, even if parts of the military’s declaration echo a speech Macron made about the values of the Republic a short while ago. They’re supposed to keep traps shut.

The press is there to reveal that several military figures linked to an obscure website where the statement first appeared before going viral, are on a first name basis with Marine LePen’s Rassemblement National, suggesting that this is a provocation encouraged if not engineered by the daughter of one of DeGaulle’s rebellious officers. Plus ça change.

‘Afghanistan, Mali, Central Africa and elsewhere, some of us have faced enemy fire. Some have lost comrades. They have offered their skin in order to destroy the Islamism to which you make concessions on our soil. Almost all of us have participated in Operation Sentinelle. There we have seen with our own eyes the abandoned suburbs, the concessions made to crime. We have endured attempts at seduction by numerous religious communities, for whom France means nothing, nothing but ridicule, contempt and even hatred.’

One of the groups connected to the two publication is Volontaires pour la France (VPF), a miniscule group of retired military convinced that France is crumbling under the blows of ‘Islam and a stateless financial oligarchy.’ Christian Piquemal, already sanctioned for his participation in the Februry 2016 anti-migrant manif in Calais, is now a member of the Conseil national de la résistance européenne (CNRE), founded by the promoter of racial theories and the Grand Replacement, Renaud Camus.

  Bad move, if you ask me, to heave a cautious sigh of relief and say, ‘Aha ! Suspects apprehended by a vigilant press,’ and let it go at that. You don’t have to have any sympathy for the right wing or the guts-and-glory military to acknowledge that the bombastic communique is talking about real things, ones that are going to be repeated, if only whispered, more and more in the upcoming year. Apart from massacres written about in the press and quickly forgotten, who talks about France’s forever, legacy wars in the Sub-Sahara ? The unfolding situation is tragic for the citizens of Mali, Senegal, and a half-dozen other countries, forcing human beings to flee their countries in massive numbers. France has a long tradition of welcoming outcasts and political exiles but facile multi-culturalism only goes so far.

Standing on line at the food banks, I hear a grasp of the rudiments of the problem that rarely appears in the papers. Some of the people are regular Parisians, others from immigrant families a few generations back, others more recent. Some have memories of rural France when they were children, others not at all. We’re there for food. Many know better about the rumors of far-away wars than the average French but when it comes to Operation Sentinelle, everybody’s seen the 19 year old kids in berets and camouflage, cradling submachine guns in their arms, patrolling the streets. What do they make of it ? They don’t like it one bit but at the same time they’re taken by the language the generals use. They have direct experience of  ‘the abandoned suburbs, the concessions made to crime.’ They’re far too hip (to propaganda anyway) to regard the immigrants stuck there as enemies of France – but they realize the situation is untenable. It’s a second exile imposed upon refugees. And so, at the risk of extrapolation from my very unscientific but regular, one-man polling operation, we arrive at the (hesitant) judgment that when the polls say 58% of the French public agrees with the Generals, we can reply with great authority, “Yeah, well, kinda.” They may not care for the men in the military suits, but they get the point of what they’re saying. The senseless violence, epitomized by the beheading of the teacher Samuel Paty last year, in the towns dominated by housing estates that appears to be spreading, well, everywhere – a double murder in the rural Cevennes just 36 hours ago; the killer is still at large, he may be nowhere near Paris and in any case the murder has nothing to do with Islam – but it gives people the shivers and makes them feel things are spinning out of control. Fertile ground for the next populist talking tough.

Liberals, if we can call the Macronists that, have a terror of addressing issues like these head-on. In the wake of last week’s murder in Avignon, the party is already proposing a facile non-solution, changing the law so that violence against the police carries the same penalty as a terrorist act. That’s the law as it already stands. The proposal changes nothing, grabbing a few headlines to make the regime look tough.

I leave you with this far more eloquent expression of the problem : ‘Labour – and other opponents of populist nationalism – have never really got to grips with its strengths and weaknesses in England and Scotland. It should never have been regarded as one of history’s dirty tricks or as a damaging but temporary phase. The pursuit of national liberty and self-determination is one of the great progressive forces in the world and should never be handed over tamely to right-wing demagogues as a vehicle for their toxic beliefs.’ Patrick Cockburn, writing for The Observer and Counterpunch.

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