The letter from a group of retired French generals to President Emmanuel Macron had a somewhat frightening tone to it.
It was published on the 60th anniversary of a failed coup d’état — led by a different group of retired generals in 1961 — that aimed to stop then-President Charles de Gaulle from withdrawing from Algeria, a former French colony.
A book written by Frederick Forsyth, Day of the Jackal, followed by a 1971 film of the same name, portrayed a fictional account of a professional assassin’s attempt to kill de Gaulle.
Make no mistake, the letter echoed through the halls of the Élysée Palace.
And amid these growing tensions, and warnings that the country was sliding toward a civil war, President Macron took action — announcing he would deploy algorithms and other technology to monitor the web-browsing of terror suspects, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Prime Minister Jean Castex followed by saying the government plans to submit a bill to parliament seeking permanent authority to order telecommunications companies to monitor not just telephone data but also the full URLs of specific webpages their users visit in real time.
Government algorithms would alert intelligence officials when certain criteria are met, such as an internet user visiting a specific sequence of pages, WSJ reported.
Macron has come under intense pressure to crack down on terrorism as well as Islamist separatism, an ideology his government says fuels attacks by radicalizing segments of France’s Muslim minority.
A middle-school teacher was beheaded in a terrorist attack in October, and on Friday an administrative police worker in Rambouillet was stabbed to death in a terrorist attack on a police station, WSJ reported.
The same day, Marine Le Pen, leader of the anti-immigrant National Rally party, threw her support behind a group of retired generals who published a letter in the far-right magazine Valuers Actuelles, saying the spread of Islamism and other ideologies was pushing France toward a civil war.
In the letter, which is addressed to Macron, the generals demand the eradication of what they consider threats to France’s national identity, ranging from the antiracism movement, which the letter said seeks to erase French history, to “Islamism and the hordes of the banlieues,” a reference to the working-class suburbs of France that have large Muslim populations.
“There’s no time for procrastination. Otherwise, tomorrow a civil war will put an end to this growing chaos. And the dead, for whom you’ll bear responsibility, will number in the thousands,” the letter says.
The lead signatory of the letter, Christian Piquemal, is a former Foreign Legion commander who was arrested for taking part in an anti-migrant demonstration in 2016.
Castex was quick to fire back: “I condemn in the strongest terms this initiative, which is contrary to our republican principles and to the honor and duty of the army,” he said.
“This isn’t about the army. These generals represent no one but themselves,” he added.
General François Lecointre, France’s top military official, said in an interview with newspaper Le Parisien that he had identified 18 active-duty members of the military who signed the letter, WSJ reported.
Le Pen, who lost to Macron in 2017 and is challenging him in next year’s presidential election, published an open letter of her own in Valeurs Actuelles, praising the generals and calling on them to join her in a battle that she described as political and peaceful.
“The concerns that you courageously express cannot remain at the stage of expressing outrage, however powerful,” Le Pen wrote.
The statement drew a sharp response.
“How can people — in particular Madam Le Pen, who aspires to exercise the responsibilities of the state — support an initiative that doesn’t exclude turning against the republican state?” Castex said.
In its new counterterrorism and intelligence bill, the government is proposing to expand a mostly telephone-based surveillance system first put in place after a spate of terrorist attacks in 2015 to encompass web browsing, too, with the aim of detecting potential terrorists who aren’t on authorities’ radar, WSJ reported.
“We’ve moved from an external threat, with highly murderous attacks on France in 2015, to a threat that is internal, and much more difficult to follow using traditional intelligence techniques,” French Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin said.
The original surveillance system, which began operation in 2017 and is set to expire at the end of July, currently requires telecommunications operators to monitor telecom metadata on their networks using three separate algorithms aimed at detecting patterns that could suggest terrorism.
A parliamentary report last year found that the system “has produced interesting results,” but the scope of the data it collects, based mostly on telephone data, doesn’t provide investigators “a sufficient level of relevance and specificity.”
Darmanin said algorithms would allow the state to potentially pick up if a person was repeatedly searching online for a topic such as beheadings, the Guardian reported.
He argued that Google and other online commercial sites already used algorithms and the state should be able to as well, with independent oversight – despite concern from some rights lawyers that there would not be enough transparency.
“The last nine attacks on French soil were committed by individuals who were unknown to the security services, who were not on a watchlist and were not suspected of being radicalised,” Darmanin told France Inter radio.
This meant new methods were needed, he said, adding that of 35 attacks prevented by the state since 2017, two were stopped by intelligence work online.
All polls currently show that the far-right Le Pen would make it to a final round runoff against Macron in the 2022 presidential election and increase her vote.
With no clear candidate on the mainstream right and the left divided, Le Pen is increasingly attacking Macron on security, terrorism and immigration.
An Ifop poll this weekend for the Journal du Dimanche found 86% of people think security issues will play an important part in their vote in 2022.