The political polarization that heralds the competition between President Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen in the 2022 presidential elections has recently accelerated. The publication of two open letters signed by military officers calling for a patriotic surge against the country’s supposed decadence and accusing President Macron of inaction constitutes only the tip of the iceberg of a deeper and broader societal dissatisfaction captured by Le Pen’s National Rally (formerly National Front) and amplified by new conservative, far-right leaning voices in the media realm.
France has entered the campaign for the presidential elections of Spring 2022, which will very likely see a confrontation between Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. With the formerly mainstream parties, Les Républicains and the Socialist Party, out of the picture, the only political opposition to Macron’s “La République En Marche” (LREM) is coming from Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally (NR) and, to a lesser extent, from the leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s La France Insoumise.
The 2019 European elections saw the victory of the NR (23.34% of the vote) over Macron’s party (22.42%), confirming the anchoring of a new bipolarity between the RN and LREM. This bipolarity has been welcomed and encouraged by both Le Pen and Macron, who have used broadly the same “patriots vs mondialists” and “progressivists vs. populists” rhetoric in their parties’ respective campaigns. Indeed, the two need each other: Macron allows Le Pen to position herself as the main political opposition to the “establishment,” while Le Pen enables Macron to pose as a “bulwark against fascism” and to rescue what has been, even before the pandemic, a difficult presidency marked by the major Yellow Vests crisis.
But beyond the personalization of the presidential competition, several worrisome deeper trends demonstrate the polarization of public opinion and the rooting of far-right narratives in the French public space.
The French TV channel CNews, owned by the digital media group Canal+, itself a subsidiary of Vincent Bolloré’s Vivendi, aims to become the French Fox News. It is ready to challenge the French law that requires a balance of opinions to be presented on the air and to cover the financial costs (fines or withdrawal of advertising slots) of not respecting the law. The channel regularly creates political buzz with its three conservative, far-right leaning political shows. These include a morning show by Pascal Praud—regularly flagged by the French Broadcasting Council for a lack of balance of opinion—that presents itself as an alternative to “left-wing self-righteousness” and a midday show by Sonia Mabrouk, known for her interview denouncing antiracism as a “perversion.”
But CNews’ biggest success is its evening show, Face à l’info (In front of the news), anchored by Eric Zemmour. Zemmour started his career working for the mainstream right-wing newspaper Le Figaro before becoming a regular guest on late-night TV shows, where he regularly clashed sharply with other guests. He made a name for himself in 2010 when he was fired from Le Figaro after saying on national television that “most drug traffickers are Blacks and Arabs.” That scandalous image has paved the way for his success: that same year, he was offered the opportunity to head his first radio show on the private digital RTL network, and a year later he got his very own TV show on RTL’s Paris Première.
Zemmour also possesses a well-stocked Rolodex. He maintains privileged relations with the most popular figures on the far right, including its godfather, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Notably, Zemmour also held a leading position on Marine Le Pen’s European elections list last year, though he declined it to ally with the more radical branch of the Le Pen family, that of Marine’s niece Marion Maréchal. The youngest of the Le Pen family, 30-year-old Marion belongs to the new wave of Trump-style “national conservatism,” openly claiming the symbols that have traditionally marked the French far-right identity against the strategy of normalization led by her aunt Marine Le Pen.
Zemmour’s own political ambitions have been rising. The investigative newspaper Mediapart recently revealed that Zemmour’s “friends” are working to finance his presidential candidacy and have created an association to fund the “Friends of Eric Zemmour” party. None of these initiatives have been publicly supported by Zemmour himself. But the possibility that he might run has the potential to both boost the far right in the next elections and cast a shadow over Marine Le Pen, who has asked her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, to dissuade Zemmour from running.
CNews’ audience is growing and has just surpassed a more traditional, yet likewise conservative, competitor, BFM TV. The rise of this French version of Fox News and of public figures like Zemmour is not unique. Among the printed press, the far-right weekly Valeurs actuelles has become a commercial success, with a circulation of 108,000 paper copies weekly. Its editorial director, Geoffroy Lejeune, is now an anchor for “Balance ton poste,” a television show broadcast on the third most popular national television channel, C8.
On April 21 and then May 11, Valeurs actuelles released two letters signed by retired and active military officers in which they threatened the country with a deadly civil war and called on President Macron to act. The first letter was signed by about 20 generals, mostly retired, the second by about 100 high-ranking officers and more than 1,000 other soldiers. Even if both letters call for “patriotism,” their far-right tone leaves no doubt: they play on the risk of a “race war,” conflate Islamism with the Arab-origin inhabitants of French suburbs, and call for protecting “our civilizational values.” The date of the publication of the first letter, April 21, also had strong symbolic resonance: it marked the 60th anniversary of the Algiers putsch of 1961, which gave rise to the creation of the far-right terrorist organization OAS, of which the founder of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, was a member.
A week before the first open letter, Valeurs actuelles released a “call to insurrection” by the far-right and Catholic figure Philippe de Villiers, founder of the sovereignist Mouvement pour la France (MPF), which recruited dissidents from Le Pen’s National Front (now National Rally). His brother, Pierre de Villiers, who was chief of staff of the army but resigned after a public disagreement with President Macron, was supported by some of the Yellow Vests in 2018 and even “nominated” by them to replace Macron.
Marine Le Pen, too, was given the floor by Valeurs actuelles to express her support for the dissenting generals: she claimed to share their assessment of threats endangering France’s survival and invited them to take action by joining the National Rally. Several signatories of the letter (François Gaubert, Emmanuel de Richoufftz, Norbert de Cacqueray) have built post-army political careers as local candidates for NR. Others have been active with more radical groups outside of the NR framework, calling for self-defense and resistance against the so-called Great Replacement, Renaud Camus’ “theory” that cosmopolitan elites are working to replace native White Europeans with migrants.
Gendarmerie Captain Jean-Pierre Fabre-Bernadac, who served in the 1990s as head of the Department of Security Protection (DPS), the National Front’s security service, has, for instance, been publishing a blog that publicizes pro-Great Replacement theories. General Antoine Martinez, now retired from the Air Force, is co-president of the Volunteers for France (VPF), whose subsection Action des forces opérationnelles faced several arrests of members for planning an attack on Muslims in 2018. Christian Piquemal, a former paratrooper and ex-commander of the Foreign Legion, has founded a Circle of Patriotic Citizens that, in 2016, collaborated with other ultra-right groups—including Pegida France, Dissidence Française, and Martinez’s VPF group—and spoke at a demonstration “against the Islamization of Europe.” Arrested and disbarred from the military, he received the support of Marion Maréchal. He then joined the Conseil National de la Résistance Européenne, founded by Renaud Camus.
An almost open call for insurrection by the army is quite unique in today’s French context, revealing tensions between the civilian government and some military circles that usually remain hidden. The entrance of the far right into the military—the memory of the Algerian war is key here—has accelerated in recent years, with Islamic terrorism used to denounce the government’s supposed incapacity to protect the country. In 2018, the General Directorate of Internal Security (DGSI) highlighted the growing proportion of military or law enforcement personnel who have joined self-defense groups born in the wake of the terrorist attacks—and in March 2021, a neo-Nazi network within the French army was discovered and disbanded. Between 45 and 65 percent of the French police and gendarmerie (depending on the survey, the elections, and whether retired police are included) have voted for the National Rally since 2015.
The “lepenization” of some segments of the French public space and especially of the media landscape, epitomized by CNews and Valeurs actuelles and personalized by Zemmour, confirms the growing circulation of sovereignist, Eurosceptic, and anti-immigrant narratives, and even further right-wing conspirationist, openly racist, and even accelerationist (wishing the acceleration of violent racial clashes to wake up “white consciousness” and create an ethnostate) theories.
The almost open call for insurrection coming from the military along the same ideological lines exposes the risks of Le Pen’s securing more support than many polling agencies can capture statistically. So far, Le Pen has been stagnating in the polls at around 30-35% of expected votes, but securing public support from the military reinforces the feeling—rightly or wrongly—that her ideas are widespread among the population. A survey by Harris Interactive the day after the first letter found that 58% of respondents agreed with the Generals’ statements.
For Macron, maintaining political equilibrium with the far right seems to be a political headache that has only worsened with the insidious risk of dissidence from within his law enforcement structures.
Marlene Laruelle, Ph.D., is Director and Research Professor at the Institute for European, Russian and Eurasian Studies (IERES), Elliott School of International Affairs, The George Washington University. Dr. Laruelle is also Director of the Illiberalism Studies Program at GW and Senior Research Fellow at IFRI, Paris.
Périne Schir is a Non-Residential Fellow at the George Washington University in the Program on Transnational History of the Far Right.
Photo: “Garde républicaine cavalry squadron – Paris,” by Domenjod licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0; “Lille – Meeting de Marine Le Pen pour l’élection présidentielle, le 26 mars 2017 à Lille Grand Palais (055),” by Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick licensed under Wikimedia Commons / GFDL-1.2; mapchart.net licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Edited by John Chrobak