When historians look back on the late 2010s and early 2020s, many will label the period as a challenging era for France. In the last few years, Paris has confronted sluggish economic growth, sustained terrorist activity and a global pandemic. Yet as French society grows progressively more diverse, the biggest crisis facing Paris appears to be France’s religious demography. Recent events have demonstrated the pressing need for France to reconcile its long-held secular values with the increasing prominence of Islam in day-to-day life.
While France’s identity crisis has dominated public debate in the last few months, the nation was nonetheless taken by surprise in late April when an open letter warning of “civil war” was published in a right-wing magazine. Signed by twenty ex-generals and more than a thousand other veterans, the letter demanded that the Government take immediate action to “safeguard the nation” from Islamist “hordes”. In the absence of an effective government response, they ominously threatened an “intervention” of active military personnel to “protect” what they called France’s “civilisational values”.
After the French Government initiated a crackdown targeting the letter’s authors, a second letter was released to the public in May, this time signed by thousands of active serving military personnel. The new letter has condemned the state for “silencing French citizens'' and has received over 250,000 signatures at the time of this article’s publication. According to the letter’s authors, who claim to have served on recent deployments in Afghanistan, Mali and the Central African Republic, the very “survival of [the] nation” is at stake.
Having been published exactly sixty years after France’s last attempted coup d’etat, the recent letters speak to the depth of the national identity crisis that is sweeping French society. With the crisis reaching a point where thousands of former and actively serving soldiers are talking of a civil war, it is important to ask what brought France to this point.
Why is the situation so tense?
Owing to its high living standards and colonial heritage, France has long been a prime destination for migrants and refugees from Islamic regions, particularly from the Arab world and Sub-Saharan Africa. However, France’s relationship with its Islamic population has grown increasingly strained due to the rise of Daesh-inspired lone wolf attacks.