French Army chief steps down after rogue ex-generals raise extremism fears

General Francois Lecointre quits to avoid ‘politicisation’ of his role ahead of presidential elections

The French Army chief has resigned amid an ongoing row sparked by retired generals who raised the prospect of a military coup and accused President Emmanuel Macron of failing to get a grip on Islamist extremism.

Gen Francois Lecointre, 59, said he would step down as chief of defence staff on July 21 to avoid being dragged into a political debate before next year's presidential election, likely to be between Mr Macron and far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

The row began after 20 retired generals in April said in an open letter that France risked a “civil war”, saying the country was “disintegrating” under pressure from “Islamism and the hordes of youths”.

The letter, published in the far-right magazine Valeurs Actuelles, was signed by thousands of soldiers, almost all of whom withheld their names, although six retired generals revealed their identity.

Gen Lecointre quit a day after it was reported Mr Macron’s government forced him to summon the six to a “higher disciplinary council” for their remarks. They risk losing their status as reserve officers.

French newspaper Le Monde reported the government pressured Gen Lecointre to speak out against the signatories, even though military officials wanted the matter dealt with privately.

Gen Lecointre said at the time there was no desire for an uprising within military ranks and accused the retired generals of breaking their duty. “The more senior they are, the more serious the sanctions will be,” he said.

In a response to the letter, Ms Le Pen urged the generals to "join her in the battle for France”.

"I can say that I share their concern, I share their assessment,” she said.

Gen Lecointre said he would stand down after next month’s Bastille Day parade.

He said he wanted to leave to avoid the “politicisation” of his role and maintain the independence of France’s armed forces, reminding people that he served the office of president, “not Emmanuel Macron”.

“We must avoid people thinking that a chief of defence staff is chosen for his political opinions,” he told French television.