France: first the disturbing news
More than a thousand mostly retired officers, including twenty generals, have published an open letter with a barely concealed call for a military coup in France, reports the Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) on 29 April. They want to prevent what they call the ‘disintegration’ of France. Only military ‘intervention’, they say, can do away with ‘Islamism’ and the mobs in the slum areas. Their open letter in Valeurs actuelles (21 April) makes it clear they are targeting Muslim immigrants from North Africa. ‘The situation is serious’ say the authors. The date of publication is no coincidence. Exactly 60 years ago the military in Algeria (at the time still French) organised a coup against General de Gaulle to prevent Algeria becoming independent. Six days later the coup fizzled out. Some of the officers involved subsequently joined Jean-Mare Le Pen’s Front National, now run by his daughter Marine under the name ‘Rassemblement national’ (RN).
Today’s would-be insurgents claim the ‘fundamental values of our civilisation’ are being undermined because the powers that be are doing nothing to stop the ‘race war waged by the hate-filled, fanatical supporters’ of Islamism. If nothing is done, they claim, there is a risk of France ending up as a patchwork of areas where ‘the prevailing dogma runs counter to our constitution’. In their letter they offer President Macron a ‘last chance’ to strictly apply existing legislation to combat Islamism. Failure to do so would inevitably lead to ‘intervention by our brothers-in-arms in active service’ with the possibility of thousands of deaths, with the government bearing sole responsibility for the outcome.
Not surprisingly, Marine Le Pen has welcomed this initiative by ‘committed patriots’, saying she fully endorses their analysis and their concern: ‘As you know, I believe it is the duty of all French patriots to rise up in support of la Patrie’. By an amazing coincidence, three of the generals who signed the open letter have been candidates for the RN. This could backfire on Le Pen, the NZZ says. She is a candidate in the presidential election next year and has spent years trying oi distance herself from the right-wing extremist legacy of her father and make her party more acceptable to middle class voters. Research by Cevipof, part of the Paris Institute of Political Studies, estimates that about half the members of the armed forces and police in France vote for the far right. Former army chief of staff Pierre de Villiers, who resigned after falling out with Macron in 2017, is seen as a possible presidential candidate for the authoritarian right, although he was not a co-signatory of the open letter in ‘Valeurs actuelles’.
Defence Minister Florence Parly has stressed that any officers in active service who signed the open letter can expect disciplinary action against them, although she has played down the significance of the letter, saying ‘These retired generals represent only themselves’.
Politico Playbook Paris (29.04) quotes an article in Le Parisien (also 29.04) in which François Lecointre, army chief of staff, expresses his opinion on the open letter. ‘This is an unacceptable attempt to manipulate the army’. He went on to say that that the signatories ‘are well aware that they are taking a political stance’. He said he was ‘shocked and disgusted’ at the signatories’ appeal to serving soldiers. Lecointre calls for signatories still in active service to be forcibly retired.
…and now the encouraging news
Breton campaigners have celebrated a ‘historic breakthrough’ after the French parliament passed a law on the protection and promotion of minority languages. NationCymru (09.04), an independent news service in Wales, says the law will make it possible for children to receive immersive education in languages like Breton – as well as Catalan, Occitan, Basque, Corsican or Alsatian boost funding for schools teaching them and recognise the languages as part of France’s national heritage. It was France’s first law in support of regional languages since the fifth republic began in 1958 and was passed by 247 votes to 76 despite being opposed by the education minister.
Daniel Camos, the Catalan government’s representative in France, said it was a ‘small step towards the recognition of Catalan in France’ and ‘for the promotion of linguistic diversity in the world’. Gael Briand, editor of the Peuple Breton magazine, told NationCymru: ‘We can’t say that our languages have been saved and they are still not co-official but important advances have been obtained. Above all, it was education that was at stake – immersive education has been approved and funding for Diwans (Breton language schools) will be more secure.’
The vote came weeks after major demonstrations in Brittany sparked by French government plans to slash the amount of teaching time allowed in Breton and cut funding needed to train more Breton teachers. Emmanuel Macron had promised to support regional languages during his election campaign, but his education minister, Michel Blanquer, opposed the law yesterday along with the parliamentary group of the president’s La République En Marche party. Blanquer claimed during the debate that France had already ‘found the right balance’ between regional languages and French and said there is a ‘social risk behind immersion’ in minority languages because some children could fall behind in French.
But Paul Molac, who had supported the law, said France’s regional languages are ‘classed as in danger of extinction according to UNESCO and the percentage of students learning them is totally insufficient to ensure their future’. He pointed out that Quebec had passed a similar law to protect French in Canada more than 40 years ago. Despite the official opposition of Macron’s party, some 100 of its MPs rebelled to vote in favour of the law. The majority of MPs in the France Insoumise group of far-left presidential candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon voted against the law.
Him or her?
The German-language press has been full of the Christian Democrats inept attempt to pick a leader for Germany’s federal election in September. The CDU’s choice was Armin Laschet, PM of North-Rhine Westphalia, a pleasant if charisma-free man, while the junior partner – the CSU – wanted Marcus Söder, PM of Bavaria. To avoid a damaging split (after nearly causing a damaging split) Söder backed down and the Christian Democrats have, possibly reluctantly, picked Laschet as their man.
Meanwhile, the Greens managed to avoid all bickering in public and picked one of their co-leaders, Annalena Baerbock as their ‘chancellor candidate’. This low-key approach has paid off. On 28 April the results of the latest ‘Sunday question’ (who would you vote for if there were an election this Sunday), published by Forsa, showed 28% for the Greens, 22% for CDU/CSU and 13% for the SPD., with the FDP on 12%, the extremist AfD on 11% and the Left on 7%. Die Zeit’s headline on 22 April was ‘Sie oder er? (Her or him).
Flag it up
In the Irish Times (01.04) Finn McRedmond argues that the rise in Union Jack flag-waving is a sign of deep anxiety in the UK. Nation building exercises like flag waving and anthem singing are associated with nascent, insecure countries. Britain is older as a nation state. But countries reinvent themselves. Perhaps in the wake of Brexit and with the union under existential threat, a new Britain is emerging. Flag waving, he says, is a rather flimsy way to reclaim the robustness the union once boasted. It is the qualities of the cause, not pictures of the cause, that convince people. But this latest venture in flag waving is at odds with the political realities of Britain right now, he concludes, with Scotland ‘a fully realised nation on its own terms’.
It’s party time… or not
Writing in EU Observer (02.04), Nikolaj Nielsen casts doubts on the rumours of a possible far-right alliance of MEPs. This follows a meeting of Hungarian, Polish and Italian conservative-nationalist leaders in Budapest, organised by Hungary’s PM Viktor Orbán, with the aim of creating a new populist alliance after his Fidesz MEPs were booted out of the dominant centre-right group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (EPP). A report published by the LSE says that economic and political nativism, further divided by East-West perspectives, makes such an alliance a remote possibility.
Elsewhere in EU Observer, Nielsen’s colleague, Filip Rambousek, says (10.09) that the Covid bell is tolling for eastern Europe’s populists. The electorate has been willing to forgive their governments’ sins in return for growth rates above the EU average and minimal unemployment. The pandemic has now swung the pendulum of political consensus away from the populists, eroding their approval ratings ahead of key parliamentary elections in 2021 and 2022. In fact, Rambousek says, the pandemic has underlined the economic value of the EU. Traditional parties have become smarter: they have grouped together to form anti-populist broad-tent ‘movements’. In this way, they are using the populists’ own tactics, styling themselves as ordinary citizens’ initiatives taking on the establishment. This strategy has already borne fruit in Slovakia, where the aptly named Ordinary People swept into power in 2020. Similarly in Poland’s 2019 elections, the populist Law and Justice saw its grip on power weakened after pro-EU parties formed an electoral coalition.
Chronicle.lu (catering to anglophone expats in Luxembourg) reported on 05.04 that on 1 January the population stood at 634,730, according to STATEC, the national statistics office. This means that in terms of population Luxembourg is roughly the size of Gloucestershire. What is interesting, however, is that roughly 47% of the population of the Grand Duchy as a whole are foreigners – which rises to some 68% in Luxembourg City. Even more interesting: no-one objects to the presence of so many foreigners.
A lesson for all of us.