French President Emmanuel Macron’s government reacted furiously to an open letter from 20 retired generals warning of a possible military takeover and bloody civil war in response to what they characterised as the disintegration of a country under Islamist extremism.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen seized on the intervention as a powerful demonstration of support for her populist agenda, boosting her chances of replacing Mr Macron in next year's election.
Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly threatened to impose sanctions on the signatories.
She denounced their letter as an irresponsible breach of the “immutable” principles of neutrality and loyalty that she says guide relations between the military and government.
The open letter has echoes of the so-called “generals’ putsch” of 1961, a failed coup led by former military commanders intent on preventing Charles de Gaulle, then president, from granting independence to Algeria.
Not all the officers and former officers who signed the letter expected it to be published by Valeurs actuelles magazine, but considered it a desperate and sincere appeal to the president and parliamentarians to act before it is too late.
But the fact that some of the more prominent signatories, including Christian Piquemal, former head of the Foreign Legion, seemed comfortable in the limelight reflects a willingness by senior military figures to step forward.
Reports suggest that as well as the 20 named generals, around 100 high-ranking serving and ex-officers, and more than 1,000 other military personnel, gave anonymous support to the letter.
The signatories warned the president and his government of a slide into division and anarchy.
“If nothing is undertaken, laxity will continue to spread inexorably in society, causing, in the end, an explosion and the intervention of our comrades in action in a perilous mission of protecting our civilisational values and safeguarding our compatriots in the national territory," the letter said.
“There is no more time for procrastination, otherwise tomorrow the civil war will put an end to this growing chaos, and the dead, for which you will bear responsibility, will number in the thousands.”
France has witnessed a series of horrific attacks carried out by Islamist terrorists.
On Friday, a woman named by French media as Stephanie Monfeture, 49, the mother of two teenage girls, was stabbed to death outside a police station, where she worked as an administrator, in the town of Rambouillet, south-west of Paris.
Her attacker, Jamel Gorchene, 36, a Tunisian allowed to settle in France after entering illegally, was from M'saken, the same town as Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who killed 89 people in a lorry attack in Nice in 2016.
Mr Gorchene had previously expressed sympathy on social media for victims of terrorism.
Marine Le Pen bolstered by Macron's perceived weakness
The generals' letter also mentioned last October's murder of history teacher Samuel Paty outside his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, in the north-western suburbs of Paris.
Ms Le Pen was trounced by Mr Macron in the 2017 race for the Elysee, but stands neck and neck with him in polls on first-round voting intentions for the May 2022 presidential election.
The polls give her 46 per cent support in a repeat of the 2017 run-off, 12 points higher than her result four years ago.
She claims the killing of Ms Monfeture is another sign that despite attempts to appear tough on security and extremism, Mr Macron has failed France on both immigration and threats to French values.
The conventional right, anxious to regain voters from Ms Le Pen, added its voice.
Valerie Pecresse, president of the French capital's regional council and another presidential hopeful, called for speedier expulsion of illegal immigrants and urged Mr Macron to accept a link between terrorism and “recent immigration”.
After taking part in a banned anti-immigration protest in Calais in 2016, Mr Piquemal was discharged from the army and forbidden to wear uniform or use military identification, but not deprived of his rank.
He denies far-right connections, although he has the support of Ms Le Pen, and claims he spoke at the protest only as an advocate of “citizen patriotism”.
Gilets jaunes sympathiser was architect of letter
The open letter was composed on the initiative of a retired gendarmerie general, Jean-Pierre Fabre-Bernadac, who was previously active in the gilets jaunes (yellow vest) anti-government protests in 2018 and 2019.
Experts in law affecting the armed forces suggest that even retired officers could be penalised if they breached their duties of neutrality and loyalty. Sanctions could range from the withdrawal of allowances to being stripped of military rank.
Ministers say scrutiny of the signatories is under way, with Ms Parly warning that any serving officer would face consequences.