Controversial campaign tactics: the use of military imagery in the European elections

10 June 2024

In the lead-up to the recent European elections, a controversial visual campaign by the French Rassemblement National (RN) sparked significant debate and condemnation from various quarters. The image, posted on the social media platform X in early June, depicted an individual in uniform with the caption, I am a gendarme/soldier, I vote Bardella, referencing the RN’s lead candidate Jordan Bardella. This post not only aimed to garner support but also stirred significant controversy regarding the appropriate use of military imagery in political campaigns.

General Christian Rodriguez, the head of the National Gendarmerie, was among the first to publicly denounce the visual. He took to social media to express his disapproval, calling the publication “unacceptable” and reminding the RN that military personnel are prohibited by their status from engaging in such political endorsements. Rodriguez’s tweet, which was retweeted over 2.000 times, highlighted the need to respect the duty of reserve expected of military members, especially during election periods.

Defense Minister Sébastien Lecornu echoed these sentiments, emphasizing that “respecting the Republic means never instrumentalizing the army, which protects the nation, for electoral purposes.” This strong stance from the defense ministry underscored the broader political and ethical concerns associated with the RN’s campaign strategy.

In response to the backlash, Jordan Bardella accused General Rodriguez of failing to adhere to his own duty of reserve by publicly criticizing a political movement during an official campaign. Marine Le Pen, leader of the RN, defended the legality of the publication, arguing that the party did not violate any rules or laws. She insisted that the RN would continue to address gendarmes and other law enforcement personnel, dismissing the general’s concerns as a subjective interpretation of the duty of reserve.

Political scientists, such as Bruno Cautrès, have noted that the RN’s strategy aims to attract a specific demographic, particularly those within the police and military, who have traditionally shown some inclination towards right-wing politics. However, Cautrès expressed scepticism about the electoral effectiveness of such tactics, suggesting that while the RN’s approach might garner attention, it may not necessarily translate into significant electoral gains.

Legally, the duty of reserve mandates that public officials, including military personnel, exercise restraint in expressing personal political opinions, both during and outside their official duties. This legal framework is designed to maintain the impartiality and integrity of public service.

It is my opinion that political parties, especially extremist ones, should not misuse military personnel for their purposes. Voting is an individual and fundamental right, including for military personnel. However, I believe that this right should not be exploited or misused by any political party, as it places an unfair stigma on military personnel and undermines their professional and personal integrity.

The misuse of soldiers or even the armed forces in political campaigns is counterproductive to the fight for the democratic and fundamental rights of military personnel. Such actions provide ammunition to those who oppose certain rights, such as the right of association, freedom of expression and political rights, enabling them to diminish or even deny these basic rights to military personnel. This undermines the principle of the “citizen in uniform”, a cornerstone of democratic societies. However, I preferred to make these remarks only after the elections to avoid giving the debate more attention than necessary during the critical days leading up to the citizens’ vote.

The RN’s controversial visual in the European election campaign has ignited in France a broader discussion about the ethical and legal boundaries of political campaigning. The strong reactions from the French military leadership and political figures highlight the delicate balance between political expression and the duty of reserve required of military personnel. As the debate continues, it serves as a reminder of the importance of maintaining the apolitical nature of the “armed forces” institution in democratic societies, but even more the need to protect the fundamental rights of military personnel without allowing their misuse in political contexts.

Emmanuel Jacob, President EUROMIL

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