Unlike most of the developed world, France moves through history not via the serenity of political evolution, but rather through the dramatic lurch of revolution, as the country continues to eye-catchingly over-correct its political failings.
The last time this happened was in the heady days of 1958, when an army revolt against the chaotic, parliamentary-dominated Fourth Republic (resulting in the military take-over of Corsica), paved the way for the ascension of the monarchical Charles de Gaulle as the savior of the country, and the founding of the strong, executive-driven Fifth Republic in the same year.
But the wily de Gaulle, convinced that to be saved France had to extricate itself from the morass of North African colonialism, failed to do the generals’ bidding and instead proclaimed Algeria’s independence. There followed a dangerous few years, as the generals plotted a coup in 1961 to retain France’s empire, and later, an army-inspired right-wing terrorist group, the OAS, set out to assassinate de Gaulle himself.
All of this real-world historical tumult provided the ideal backdrop for Frederick Forsyth’s great spy thriller, The Day of the Jackal, which takes the historical failed OAS Paris assassination plot as its starting point, before heading off into heart-thumping fiction of the first order. In Fred Zinnemann’s spine-tingling movie version of the novel, ‘The Jackal,’ perfectly played by James Fox–a suave contract killer hired by the OAS to finally finish of de Gaulle—comes within a whisker of his task. While the story is purely apocryphal, the notion that the future stability of France hung by a thread perfectly encapsulates the sense of those uncertain times.
That is why my first reaction on hearing of the extraordinary open-letter in Valeurs Actuelles, a contemporary right-wing news magazine, was simply, “The Jackal is back.” Twenty retired generals (amongst others) have created a political tsunami, calling for “a military takeover” if besieged President Emmanuel Macron fails to halt the “disintegration” of the country at the hands of Islamists. Their charges carry even more popular resonance following the recent stabbing and death of a 45-year-old woman in Rambouillet, a Parisian suburb, by a Tunisian-born Islamist.
The letter, written sixty years to the day on from the army’s 1961 coup attempt against de Gaulle, was immediately condemned by Macron—hoping to once again rally “The Republican Front” of all mainstream French political parties against the far-right. Its aims, if not the coup itself, were rhetorically welcomed by far right’s once and future presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen.
This is quite an about-face for Le Pen, who since at least 2011 has worked to detoxify the far-right brand, moving it away from its martial and extra-constitutional past in an effort to win over enough mainstream voters to vault her into the Elysee Palace. However, such a political U-turn amounts to her Rubicon; her old mainstream strategy abandoned, Le Pen has, a year out from the presidential election, tacked decisively back towards the far right.
Is there method to her madness? Le Pen is currently only eight points behind Macron in the polls for the second round of voting for the French presidency in the Spring of 2022. The far-right Presidential hopeful is counting on a few big things going her way to make this supreme gamble work. First, Macron’s government must continue to vaccinate people at a glacial pace, leading to further start-and-stop lockdowns, social confusion, and economic peril.
Second, the contrast between France’s haplessness and the opening of the booming Anglo-Saxon world must become clear over the next months, heightening Paris’s sense of humiliating malaise and decline.
Third, the government must be blamed for all this dysfunction, along with France’s social divisions, especially involving Radical Islam and France’s immigration policy.
Fourth, Le Pen must cultivate the Gilets Jaunes movement, which in 2018-2019 initiated a series of massive, nationwide protests, a provincial cri di coeur by the country’s have-nots as to elite indifference to their economic plight.
Then and only then, is a victorious political fusion of these disaffected, disparate right-wing forces possible.
But, as The Day of the Jackal makes clear, it is far more likely radical rightism will fail in France. Following the explosive army letter and Le Pen’s general support for its authors, a backlash is not only possible, it is likely. The Republican Front that Macron has up until now been unable to muster to dent Le Pen in the polls has a new resonance; there is an actual, tangible, threat to the Fifth Republic that makes such a mainstream alliance vital. Look for the backlash to come as the Jackal is bested again.