An open letter to the government

Jean-Pierre Maulny

The French army and the far right

***Version française ci-dessous***

A recent open letter from former military leadership to the French government may not point to the risk of a military coup, but it does bear witness to the dangerous trivialisation of a political discourse based on “national security and communitarianism[1]”, which marginalises certain social groups by advocating national primacy and the rejection of immigration. Even though its rough edges have been smoothed out by Marine Le Pen, this discourse remains foundational to the far right Rassemblement National.

It is difficult to write an article about France, the army, and its links with the far right without noting certain parallels. The open letter written by a former Land Army and Gendarmerie officer, signed by some sixty second-section officers[2] and subsequently endorsed by more than 27,000 members of the French armed forces, has suddenly revived dark memories in our country. In 1961, four five-star generals – namely Generals Challe, Jouhaud, Salan and Zeller – fomented a military putsch in Algiers in order to overthrow General de Gaulle, who in their eyes was guilty of leading the decolonisation policy and preventing Algeria from “remaining French”.

Sixty years have passed since the attempted Algiers putsch,[3] and thus the date of publication of the open letter resounds, in France, as a kind of anniversary of that event. Arguably, the similarities end there. Yet, the publication of the letter does raise serious questions, particularly about the potentially seditious nature of part of the French army (which in turn raises the issue of the devoir de réserve or “duty of discretion”) and about the links between the French army and the far right.

The open letter paints a very bleak picture of France, which is characterized as rife with inter-community conflict. It raises the spectre of civil war in a country in the throes of decay. The tone is apocalyptic: “The hour is grave, France is in peril, several mortal dangers threaten her.” The enemy is “the other”, “Islamism and the suburban hordes” who allegedly wish to destroy the country. “They despise our country, its traditions, its culture, and want to see it dissolve by tearing away its past and its history.” The consequence of this chaotic situation can only be a civil war which the army will put an end to: “If nothing is done about it, laxity will continue to spread inexorably in society, ultimately provoking an explosion and the intervention of our active-duty comrades in a perilous mission to protect our civilisation’s values and safeguard our fellow citizens on the national territory.

A call to the army to take on its responsibilities

This last sentence caused much speculation, resounding as a call to the army to take on its “responsibilities”, which in itself can only be interpreted as the threat of a military coup. However, one of the signatories of the open letter, General Coustou, felt compelled to deny this interpretation, indicating that “the intervention of active military personnel in accordance with the provisions of our Constitution would be carried out under the orders of the head of the army, that is, the President of the Republic”.[4] This clarification only served to underline a little more sharply the potentially seditious character of the open letter.

For her part, the President of Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen, in publishing an open letter of her own in Valeurs actuelles on 22 April in which she stated that she shared the military signatories’ concerns, further underlined the proximity between the views of her own far-right party and those expressed in the generals’ letter. Marine Le Pen also called on the military to join forces with her, with a view to the next elections.[5]

The government’s response was strong: the Minister of the Armed Forces, Florence Parly, and the Chief of Staff, General Lecointre, called for sanctions against the signatories, for failure to respect the “duty of discretion”.[6]

The first issue raised is therefore that of the violation of the “duty of discretion” to which the military are subject. It should be pointed out that the generals who signed the open letter are no longer in active duty. The “second-section status”, a peculiarity that exists only in France, is reserved for older soldiers who are not formally retired and who can be recalled, especially in the event of war. Does this absolve them from the “duty of discretion”? Surely not, but their link to the military institution is not as strong as in the case of active military personnel. Sanctions against these servicemen are also open to criticism, given that service members’ freedom of expression has been a hotly debated issue in France for the past 25 years, with some considering the rules applied to them as too vague and subject to restrictive interpretations.[7] Article D4121-1 of the French Defence Code recognises that “all military personnel have the right to express themselves freely in accordance with the provisions of the General Statute of Military Personnel”. On the other hand, Article L4121-2 specifies that political opinions “may only be expressed off duty and with the reserve required by members’ military status” – without, however, this notion of “reserve” having been clearly defined.

According to a Louis Harris poll carried out by the 24-hour news channel LCI one week after the publication of the generals’ letter, 58% of respondents said they supported the military personnel who had signed the open letter,[8] indicating at the same time that sanctions could be interpreted by the public as an arbitrary measure intended to gag opponents of the government and the President of the Republic.

However, the open letter presents two risks.

The first risk arises from the violent language employed, which – by placing excessive emphasis on the divisions in French society – can only precipitate the ills that the signatories purport to want to cure.

The second risk arises from the fact that the open letter was signed by military personnel – as opposed to ordinary citizens – who present it as an expression of the views of the French army. Its aim is therefore to give the impression that there is a body of state officials, namely the military, that is opposed to the government currently in power. The unacceptability of the letter lies in this, rather than in the ideas it propounds, because it regards the military as a social body that is placed above all others, and it implies, furthermore, that this body is united in challenging the policies of a democratically elected government. The form of the generals’ statement is therefore dangerous for democracy in terms of the message it seeks to convey, since the idea of an army united against the current government is simply false.

That leaves us with the second question: whether the French army is a far-right entity. The answer lies in a serious criticism that can be levelled against the generals’ platform: no political party whatsoever can rightfully claim to “own” the votes of any given social/professional group. The same is true for the army as well as any other social/professional group. Similarly, no state body can rightfully claim to hold a political view that represents the body as a whole. The right of military personnel, including generals, to support far-right ideas, including those of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN), is fundamentally legitimate. However, for a group of military personnel to express these ideas in a collective forum, thus suggesting that the group represents the French army as a whole, is both false and dangerous, since it gives the impression that a body of the state is prepared to reject the authority of the state.

As a matter of fact, a study by the Jean Jaurès Foundation showed that the vote for the RN (formerly known as Front National, or FN) was substantially larger in garrison towns than in other towns in France.[9] The study notes that Le Pen’s share of the vote increased for the first time between the 2012 presidential election and the 2014 European elections, and that support for the FN increased again very significantly in the first round of the 2015 regional elections, a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of 13 November 2015. As regards the European elections, the Jean Jaurès Foundation study shows a larger share of the vote for RN – ranging from 8 to 17 percentage points – in garrison towns compared to the overall figure for the départements where they are located.

Table: 2019 European election results





% of RN vote in the municipality

% of RN vote in the département







+17 pt s.





+10 .4 pts.





+15.3 pts.









+14.7 pts.









+11.1 pts.





+7.9 pts.

 La Cavalerie




+14 .6 pts.





+8 .6 pts.

Source: Pour qui votent les casernes, Jean Jaurès Foundation, 2019

If we approach the far-right leanings of part of the French military from a more sociological or socio-political perspective, we can identify two categories of military personnel who adhere to far-right ideas – two categories that are distinct, albeit with links between them.

The first category of far-right military personnel is found in French traditionalist Catholic circles, which often include successive generations of soldiers, from father to son. These military figures adhere to a vision of Catholicism that could be described as strict, if not fundamentalist. A case in point is provided by the Salon Beige blog, which describes itself as a “daily news blog by lay Catholics”.[10] Its themes are those of classic right-wing Catholicism. At the societal level, this translates into a merciless fight against the law establishing gay marriage, as well as against abortion and assisted human reproduction. At the political level, the preferred themes are the fight against immigration and Islam, which are often equated with delinquency and terrorism. This group’s tutelary figure within the religious institutions is the bishop of Fréjus, Dominique Rey, who is considered the precursor of what is termed “Catholic neo-conservatism”. He is frequently interviewed on Salon Beige and Boulevard Voltaire, another site championing far-right ideas. Salon Beige has abundantly relayed the generals’ open letter, among other right-wing views.

The second group of far-right military personnel adheres to a political philosophy that could be described as National Socialist in the literal sense of the term. Here the fight against immigration is coupled with the defence of “the neglected French”, i.e., that fringe of the middle class that is downwardly mobile or regards itself as such. This group’s members can be identified in particular by their support for the Yellow Vests movement during the crisis that shook France in the winter of 2018. In this instance, the senior military officers also take on the role of protectors of their soldiers, who are considered, as it were, the “Yellow Vests” of the army, given that they cannot go on strike – which also applies to the members of the other state security force, the police, although the latter comes under civilian authority.

While adding a social dimension to his discourse, the former Chief of Staff of the Army, Pierre de Villiers, who resigned from his position in 2017, and who regards the Yellow Vests crisis as “the materialisation of the gap between the elite and the people”,[11] can also be ranked in this category of military personnel on the right (or even far right) of the political spectrum. However, the former Chief of Staff of the Army, who also makes no secret of his Catholic faith, has never adhered to a discourse stigmatising Islam or immigration, unlike the militaries who signed the April 2021 statement. For their part, second-section Generals Martinez Piquemal and Coustou signed a letter, in 2018, accusing the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, of “denial of democracy and even betrayal of the nation”, on the occasion when France was preparing to sign the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) adopted by the United Nations in Marrakech in December 2018.[12]

In summary, we can draw four conclusions:

  • There is no formal institutional link between the army and the far right.
  • However, it is true that voting for the right and the far right is more prevalent in the army than in other social/professional groups.
  • Moreover, there is traditionally a strong contingent of senior military officers linked to the conservative Catholic milieu, with one branch militating against immigration and Islam and the other branch having a more social bent.
  • Lastly, it is clear that the open letter was written and signed by soldiers close to Rassemblement National and the views of the far right in general.

More than suggesting the risk of a putsch by the armed forces (given that it could only bring together a few non-active-duty generals), the open letter essentially bears witness to the trivialisation of the discourse around “national security” and “communitarianism”, which excludes certain social groups by advocating national primacy and the rejection of immigration. Even though Marine Le Pen has somewhat smoothed out its rough edges, this discourse remains the foundation of Rassemblement National.

About the author

Jean-Pierre Maulny is Deputy Director of the Institut de relations internationales et stratégiques (French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs – IRIS), where he is responsible for research studies on various issues relating to defence, including European defence and NATO, the arms industry and arms trade. He heads the Armament Industry European Research Group (ARES), a network of European researchers specialising in defence industry issues. Jean-Pierre Maulny is a member of the editorial board of the “Revue Internationale et Stratégique”.


[1] Editor’s note: “communitarianism”, or communautarisme, is a fashionable concept in French political discourse, generally posited in opposition to the integrationist values of the French Republic. It is most commonly deployed to describe Muslim communities that have allegedly failed – or decline – to integrate; and which thus become breeding grounds for radical ideologies that oppose “French values”, particularly Islamisme, or fundamentalist Islamic terrorism.

[2] General officers and equivalent-ranking officers are divided into two “sections”: the first section comprises general officers on active duty, on secondment, with non-active status or unassigned to a specific unit; the second section comprises general officers who, not belonging to the first section, are kept at the disposal of the Minister of the Armed Forces.

[3] The Algiers putsch began on 21 April 1961, and the generals’ open letter was published in the weekly Valeurs actuelles on 21 April 2021, but its initial publication on the Place d’Armes website dates from 14 April 2021: LETTRE OUVERTE A NOS GOUVERNANTS ( ​​​​​​​

[4] Le général (2S) André Coustou porte plainte contre la ministresse Agnès Pannier-Runacher”, Salon Beige blog, 16 May 2021,

[5] Marine Le Pen, “Messieurs les généraux, rejoignez-moi dans la bataille pour la France”, Valeurs actuelles, 29 April 2021,

[6] Tribune des militaires : un processus disciplinaire long qui risque de durer jusqu’à la campagne présidentielle”, Le Monde, 30 April 2021,

[7] Lieutenant-Commander Eric Mailly, “L’expression des militaires : une liberté au service de la nation”, École de guerre 2018,

[8]Tribune des militaires : 58% des Français soutiennent l’initiative des signataires”, LCI, 29 April,

[9] Jerome Fourquet, Sylvain Manternach, “Pour qui votent les casernes”, Jean Jaurès Foundation, 15 July 2019,

[10] Henri Tincq, “La grande peur des catholiques de France”, Grasset, 2018.

[11] General Pierre de Villiers, “La lassitude de la population pourrait faire place à la colère”, L’écho, 20 March 2021,

[12] “Ces généraux de l’armée française qui partent en croisade contre le pacte de Marrakech”, Breizh-Info, 19 December 2018,

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