April 27, 2021 - 3:33pm

France is obsessed with dates. Almost every town has a street named after a significant date – frequently the day of liberation from the Nazis.

So when twenty retired French generals published an intemperate open letter warning of “civil war” on 21 April, it was a deliberately provocative move. The date marks 60 years to the day after a group of retired generals and some active officers tried to mount a coup against President Charles de Gaulle to prevent him giving Algeria its independence.

The letter talks of a military coup unless the government did something or other to combat “Islamism” and the “hordes” rampaging in the multi-racial suburbs. Not only is the language provocative, but it is also absurdly extreme: “growing chaos…civil war…final explosion…intervention by our active comrades…cowardly politicians… responsible for thousands of deaths.” No practical suggestions were made of what the government might do. 

The first signature was that of Christian Piquemal, a former head of the Foreign Legion, aged 80, who has a history of involvement with racist organisations. His letter was published by Valeurs Actuelles, a far-Right magazine, before it was picked up elsewhere. 

What to make of all this? The first thing to say is that we are one year from the first round of a French presidential election.

Within three days of the publication of the letter (addressed to President Emmanuel Macron), the far-Right leader Marine Le Pen responded in the same magazine by praising the far-sightedness of the retired generals and appealing to them to join her in a “peaceful…battle for France”.

I have no proof that this was a pre-arranged statement and response. I suspect that it was.

The second thing to say is that France is indeed struggling against Islamist extremism. The country has suffered more than 30 Islamist terror attacks in the last six years, including the beheading of a teacher last October. 

In the most recent attack, a 39-year-old police administrative officer was stabbed to death by a young Tunisian outside her workplace in the quiet town of Rambouillet south of Paris last Friday.

The third thing to say is that the great majority of France’s five million Muslims are hard-working and law-abiding and want to get on with their lives. Referring to them generically as “hordes” (as the letter does) is an attempt to inflame France’s problems, not to solve them.

 Finally, the letter contains a great lie. The retired generals accuse politicians, and President Macron, of “evasions” and “guilty silences”. 

Is this, one wonders, the same President Macron who is accused of “Islamophobia” by part of the French Left and racism by the U.S. media because he has brought forward a new law this year to crack down on radical Islam? You can dispute whether Macron’s approach is correct; whether it goes too far; or not far enough. Our generals pretend that it hasn’t happened at all. 

Conclusion: a disgraceful letter and a dangerous one. Marine Le Pen’s pre-cooked endorsement may do her more electoral harm than good.

John Lichfield was Paris correspondent of The Independent for 20 years. Half-English and half-Belgian, he was born in Stoke-on-Trent and lives in Normandy.