The Generals' Letter: playing with fire

The Generals' Letter: Stoking the fire of French Islamophobia
5 min read
04 May, 2021
Comment: The dangerous far-right Islamophobic rhetoric of the so-called Generals' Letter is unfortunately nothing new, writes Malia Bouattia.
French General Christian Piquemal addresses supporters at a rally. [Getty]

France has crossed a new line in its continued descent into unspeakable levels of Islamophobic political discourse and normalisation of the far-right. Last week, the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles (Contemporary Values) published an open letter endorsed by 20 former generals of the French army, and signed by around 1,000 servicemen and women.

The Generals’ Letter (as dubbed by the French media) is styled as a warning and a call to arms. It cautions that the country is heading into a “civil war,” that “France is in peril,” and faces “several deadly dangers.” Most importantly among them: “Islamism and the hordes of the banlieue,” (meaning “slums”) and “a certain anti-racism.” What specific form of opposition to racism is deemed an existential threat to the nation, is not stipulated.

The letter blames the current “chaos” on the government’s supposedly “lax” approach to the Islamism and leftism. It warns - chillingly - of the necessary “intervention of our comrades on active duty in a perilous mission of protection of our civilizational values.”

Importantly, Valeurs Actuelles published the letter on the 60th anniversary of the attempted coup by French generals in Algeria. The generals’ attempted putsch in 1961 was a desperate last stand by French settlers to frustrate the colonial state’s capitulation in the face of the sustained anti-colonial struggle by the Algerian people. The initiative failed, and the next year Algeria declared its independence.

It warns - chillingly - of the necessary ‘intervention of our comrades on active duty in a perilous mission of protection of our civilizational values’

However, the action, along with France’s colonial history in Algeria, has remained an important symbol of waning imperial power for France’s far right. In publishing the letter on that particular day, the generals, led by famous anti-migrant activist and former Foreign Legion commander Christian Piquemal, are signaling both their continued allegiance to the political project their predecessors fought for, as well as the action they deem necessary to achieve it.

The link with Algeria is of further relevance in terms of the letter’s victims: the descendants of the very people whom the French state colonised for 132 years and the army repressed with unspeakable barbarity during the decade-long war of independence, which claimed over a million martyrs in the process. In the 1950s, indigenous North African Muslims and their leftist allies were identified as the key enemies of the state, and now - the generals tell us - the same enemies remain at the gates.

Decades ago, the murderous violence was not contained to North Africa. On 17 October, 1961, French National Police massacred up to 200 Algerians in Paris, throwing bodies into the Seine. When largely communist protestors gathered to denounce the massacre, they too were violently repressed and nine were killed in the Charonne Metro Station. The further you delve into the historical images mobilised in this letter, the more chilling it becomes.

The letter does not come out of nowhere. It is the latest development of a theme that has dominated French politics in recent months: The notion that Muslims and their leftist allies are a dangerous fifth column which the Republic must stamp out if it wants to defend its values and way of life.

Dozens gathered on Tuesday above the Saint-Michel Bridge in Paris
Read more: Remembering the 1961 massacre of Algerians in Paris

From the separatism bill, which - ironically - aims to further bar Muslims from the republican public space and police their religious and community spaces, to the education minister’s assault on so-called ‘Islamo-leftism,’ as well as gender and race studies in universities, the direction of travel of the Macron government’s election programme is clear.

The president, faced with a catastrophic term in power marred by mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis, large-scale rebellion against growing inequality in the shape of the ‘gilets jaunes’ movement, and mass strike action that has paralysed the country for months on end, has attempted to save his career by assaulting Muslims head-on.

In doing so, Macron appears to try to make the elections not about poverty, structural failings of state, nor economic crisis, but instead about the ‘problems’ of Islam, migration, and so-called integration.

Through all of this, the president is shifting public debate towards the traditional political terrain of the far right, led by Marine Le Pen. He hopes that this will lead to a second round of presidential elections where he will go head-to-head with Le Pen and - just as in 2002 and 2017 - the traditional right will therefore be able to benefit from a broad, popular, anti-fascist vote. 

This strategy, however, is not without risk. First and foremost, the strategy targets France’s Muslims, who make up an important proportion of the country’s urban working class. Muslims pay for the president’s electoral manoeuvres with their religious and political freedoms. Moreover, Macron has unleashed a political tactic, which - now that the genie is out of the bottle - risks taking on a life of its own.

Muslims pay for the president’s electoral manoeuvres with their religious and political freedoms

We caught a first glimpse of that genie in February when Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin accused Marine le Pen, in a televised debate, of being “too weak“ in her response to the so-called growth of ‘Islamist ideology.’ In practice, the minister was taunting the far-right leader and pushing her to raise the stakes. This rhetoric is exactly what the Generals’ Letter represents.

Not only does the letter itself repeat key French far-right themes from the last decades: the banlieues are dangerous neighbourhoods, filled with potential terrorists and enemies of the state; Islam is incompatible with the republic; the left is guilty of normalising these threats, it does so with a (literal) call to arms.

Macron’s government is now moving to discipline some of the signatories to the letter. Some actively serving soldiers, for example, are to face military courts. But do not be fooled. While the letter is the most alarming example yet of the current political situation in France, it is not an isolated incident. 

Instead, it is the direct outcome of a conscious policy by the Macron government of whipping up anti-Muslim hatred in a desperate bid to remain in power. Letter-writers and politicians would do well to remember that those who play with fire, rarely avoid getting burnt. In this case, they have lit a forest fire and France’s Muslims are its first, although unlikely its last, victims. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Have questions or comments? Email us at: editorial-english@alaraby.co.uk