What France’s Civil War Warning Told Us About the French Army, Islam and the Far Right



Two open letters warning of a possible civil war have put Islam back at the center of the political agenda in France. Joseph downing argues that instead of seeing French Muslims as a unique threat to the country’s security, ppoliticians and the armed forces would be better served by focusing on France’s secular security concerns.

Two open letters discussing the possibility of a civil war in France sent shockwaves across Europe. The letters, written first by retired generals and then by anonymous serving soldiers, raised the question of whether French President Emmanuel Macron was losing control of the country’s military.

Despite the fury, there is little cause for concern for the French military. The base remains apolitical and faithful to its work. Indeed, no letter specified that the army wanted or would start a civil war, only that it was ready to intervene to protect the integrity of France in the event of generalized unrest.

On the contrary, these remarkable interventions told us more about the historical context of the French armed forces, their difficult relationship with civil power and the dangers of instrumentalizing Islam in political speeches at the cost of tackling security problems. secular.

The historical context

In 1961, at the end of French domination in Algeria, an attempted putsch was initiated by officers in Algiers. The failure of this putsch is generally regarded as a turning point in the involvement of the French armed forces in politics, signaling a “defeat of the generals” and the subordination of the military to civilian power.

However, in recent years, some observers have started to doubt the sustainability of this position. In particular, the increased professionalization of the military officer class was presented as a potential threat. This has been reinforced by the role of the armed forces in the fight against domestic terrorism.

Following the terrorist attacks that hit Paris in 2015, the French government set up “Operation Sentinel”, in which 10,000 combat soldiers were deployed to strengthen security at sensitive sites in France . In doing so, the government invited the French army to participate in the civilian arena in an unprecedented way.

Additional anti-jihadist deployments in West Africa and the Sahel have left the French military overworked and exasperated for a long time with problems of underfunding. But these civilian deployments also contributed to the positive image of the French army in society. Thus, the extreme right-wing element of the French armed forces, although probably few in number, can anticipate that this context of increased burden, increased popularity and unpopular civil administration offers them the opportunity to embolden their presence in the military. political field.

The French army and Islam

Both letters were quite specific on what constitutes the main threat to stability in France – namely Islam and the “concessions” made to Islamists by the French political class. This is particularly problematic because there is no evidence that the French establishment has made concessions to Islamism, whether on French soil or abroad. Macron notably turned to the right recently, both rhetorically and politically, by passing a controversial “separatism” bill that targets “radical” NGOs and mosques in France.

The bill represents an outdated conception of where radicalization takes place in France, as mosques and NGOs have not been the main vectors of radicalization in France for some time, with individuals taking much more path. various to commit Islamist-inspired acts of violence. The comments contained in the two letters also reflect another recent and unfounded controversy in France, namely that the country, and in particular its universities, are threatened by the “Islamist left” (Islamo-leftism).

The letters, however, go far beyond an abstract discussion of Islamism and fuel the long-standing marginalization and stigma of French Muslims. This is done subtly by identifying participation in Operation Sentinel as a formative experience where the military saw firsthand the abandoned suburbs of France and the associated “delinquency”.

Here, they also point the finger at “religious communities, for whom France means nothing – nothing but an object of sarcasm, contempt and even hatred”. The specter of France’s dilapidated housing estates as a hotbed of Islamist radicalization has been in the ether for some time, but is completely unfounded. This represents a long-standing distortion of secular security concerns and of France’s urban policy failures as a “problem with French Muslims.”

This narrative is made all the more erroneous by the fact that the French military is extremely diverse and a very popular career path for French Muslims. He is pragmatic about the practices of secularism, the French form of secularism that prohibits religion in the state, openly allowing imams, rabbis and priests to serve soldiers and providing soldiers with spaces for prayer. Although no official figure exists, it has been estimated that ten times as many French Muslims serve in the armed forces than have ever been active in al-Qaeda.

Indeed, anyone who has seen Operation Sentinel patrols in France would be struck by their multicultural makeup. It is simply incorrect to view the current situation as a French white army and security establishment protecting France from Islamist terrorists. On the contrary, French Muslims play an important role in securing the Republic at all levels and those who have refused to serve in operations in Muslim countries, such as Afghanistan, are included in the single figures.

French Muslims are also significant victims of Islamist terrorism in France. Among these victims in the performance of their duties are the Muslim soldiers killed by the Toulouse attacker and failed army recruit, Mohamed Merah, or Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman killed in the Charlie Hebdo attack and object of the #JeSuisAhmed twitter campaign alongside #JeSuisCharlie. It should also be noted that a number of victims of the November 13 and July 14 terrorist attacks in Nice were French Muslims going about their social occupations in bars and restaurants in Paris, celebrating the liberation of the Bastille. and performing part of being French in the public sphere.

Secular security concerns

None of this is to say that France is free from significant internal security issues. The proliferation of heavy military weapons in France, such as the infamous Kalashnikov AK-47, remains a significant problem for law enforcement agencies across the country. Moreover, France, and in particular the dilapidated suburbs identified in the second letter from the serving officers as a key source of inspiration for their intervention, have significant and well-documented social problems of housing and lack of employment.

However, what is not so well known outside of France is the significant threat to stability and security posed by extremely well organized and armed organized criminal networks that operate at many levels in the country. These secular and multicultural “narco-bandits”, who have more in common with their fellow criminals from Italy, the Balkans and even the United States, represent significant challenges for security in France.

Indeed, a mayor of the infamous and poor 15e and 16e districts of Marseille, a woman of Muslim origin, Samia Ghali, called for the deployment of the army in her city to fight against the increasing violence and instability caused by these organized criminal groups. This year, these groups made headlines when five drug traffickers were convicted of an infamous ‘barbecue in Marseille’ where organized crime groups burn the bodies of their enemies in cars to set an example for those who would consider crossing them.

The French government, and indeed those concerned about French stability within the armed forces, would do well to focus on those secular forms of insecurity that French Muslims abhor rather than fuel the same divisive rhetoric they accuse their Islamist enemies.

Joseph Downing is the author of French Muslims in Perspective: Nationalism, Postcolonialism and Marginalization under the Republic (Palgrave, 2019)


Note: This article gives the author’s point of view, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured Image Credit: Clovis Wood Photography on Unsplash




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