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Macron faces an uphill battle for the presidency as letter exposes the deep divides in French society

Josh Chapman looks into the challenges Macron faces after condemnation from military generals

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The French defence minister, Florence Parly, has launched a formal investigation into a letter from 20 retired generals that warns of a military takeover if President Macron fails to halt a ‘disintegration’ at the hands of the ‘Islamists of the hordes’.

The letter addressed to President Macron, now has over 20,000 signatures from current and former members of the French military and police. The letter was published in the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelles on 21 April, the 60th anniversary of the Algiers Putsch against Charles de Gaulle. It states that France is disintegrating into territories “subject to dogmas contrary to our constitution” and that if the President failed to act there would be a civil war to “put an end to this growing chaos and the dead, for whom [Macron] will bear responsibility, will be counted in the thousands”.

Despite condemnation from the vast majority of French political parties, polls have shown that a majority of the public support the letter. The Times has reported 58 percent support the letter and only 30 percent think that the generals should be punished. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally and Macron’s biggest rival in the presidential elections next year, has also backed the generals, and called them to join her ‘battle for France’. Most notably, a second letter published in the same magazine on 9th May has expressed support for the officers, saying that Macron has “surrender[ed] to Islamists”. Valeurs Actuelles says this letter has been signed by 2000 young servicemen and women and has attracted more than 150,000 supporters online.

These letters are just the latest development in a presidential race that has seen law and order taking increasing importance.  They were published just days after a policewoman was stabbed to death in the Parisian suburb Rambouillet by an Islamist extremist. Combined with the murder of Samuel Paty last October, Macron’s far-right critics, including Le Pen, see this as a failure to kerb Islamist extremism. They have also attributed increasing figures for crime, especially for physical assault, to him. In an attempt to turn these critics into would-be voters, Macron has pledged to recruit a further 10,000 police officers before the presidential elections next year. This move towards increasing authoritarianism is at odds with the liberal platform that he was elected on. It remains to be seen if the French public will see this as an attempt to sure up security concerns or as a further infringement on civil liberties when they are already under a 3rd lockdown.

The letters also call for Macron to strengthen the safeguards for state secularism, a core principle in the French constitution. This is despite him proposing a bill designed to do just that. The bill, currently in its drafting stage, would extend the ban on religious attire in public places and requires Muslim associations to sign statements supporting France’s republican values before they can access funding. The bill has received backlash from critics saying it is unfairly targeting Islam, sparking the social media campaign #HandsOffMyHijab. Whilst the bill appeals to those on the right, it may lose him votes if a progressive candidate can unite the left against him.

The support for the letters but the backlash against the bill shows the deep divisions in French society. Macron won by taking a centrist, liberal position which he claimed would unite the left and right in support of him. Now that this position has united the left and right against him, he is trying to take away Le Pen’s support to hold onto the presidency. He is placing his hopes on the centre-right seeing him as a more palatable figure than Marine Le Pen. But this move could see him lose voters if a socially liberal candidate can bring the left together. At the moment Macron will win against Le Pen in the second round. However, he has to get there first and right now that is far from certain.

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