Daily Management Review

In France, four-star General Bertrand Soubelet’s run for Congress

Citizens taking over French politics


In the midst of what many consider one of the largest political shifts in post-war France, the proportion of professional politicians running for office is dwindling, with rising numbers of independent former professionals, attempting to get their country back. Among them, a former high-ranking general who wilfully decided to put at stake his own military career, because he refused to sell his integrity. Change, indeed.

Four-star General Bertrand Soubelet
Four-star General Bertrand Soubelet

The wind of change is sweeping over France

For the first time in the French 5th Republic since General De Gaulle, a president who is not a professional politician is at the head of France. With the exception of a short term as Finance minister, Emmanuel Macron has carried out his entire career in the private sector. His election marks the realization of a long French fantasy: taking politics back, out of professional politician’s hands. The idea that the people in charge should come from the civilian world, and not the aboveground political one, has now shifted into reality.

The sacrifice of nicknamed “General Courage": more than one way to serve

General Bertrand Soubelet gained costly notoriety in 2013, when his career as Operations Commander for the Gendarmerie forces took a lead shot in its wing. Invited by a French congressional commission to present the security situation in France, he broke with the tradition of telling commissions what they wanted to hear: that everything was fine, even if it wasn’t. Simply and being determined, he chose to tell the truth about the security situation in France, knowing full well it was very likely to cost him his job. Actually, it did. Hence, four-star General Soubelet left the French army in 2016, after having experienced considerable political pressure during three years. 
Retired from the Gendarmerie, he’s now free to speak and act freely. He has therefore chosen to continue serving his country, but now running for office as a congressman in the 10th district, near Paris, where he has lived for decades. He plans his success to be carried by recent shift in France, in which the French showed their desire to give political and administrative responsibilities to people who had actual competence and experience, not to professional politicians, who are now seen as disconnected from the real world. Throughout his career, he has built the certainty that the legal system should be simpler, more understandable to citizens, and more marked by plain common sense. In his own words, “laws should be simple, actionable, and useful”. 

Breaking with the tradition of blaming everything on others

He distances himself from the small trend in France which blames national woes on the inadequacies of its institutions. He considers the institutions to be fine as they are, the problem being rather who is manning their institutions. France has long considered that professional politicians have spent their entire lives in the political sphere; and have little or no knowledge of what goes on in ordinary people’s lives - in the “real world”.  He points out: “Is there anyone in the National Assembly with expertise on security?  No.  Anyone with military expertise? No.”  Because he considers this to be a flaw in the institution, he offers his own expertise to fill that gap now. His historical model is Nelson Mandela, due to the South African leader’s choice, upon terminating his long prison term, not to exact revenge but to continue striving for unity and peace in his country, regardless of personal enmities. 
General Soubelet considers that public action should hinge on technical and experience-driven expertise, and that personal benefit (including his own, as he showed in choosing to speak the truth before the commission) should be set aside in the face of public interest - even when his own job is on the line.  A close and trusted (yet informal) counselor for now-president Emmanuel Macron for a while, he took his distances from the newly-formed party En Marche when the big political rush occurred. Feeling the wind was turning, many professional politicians starting knocking of the future president’s door, with many being let in, which fueled General Soubelet’s need for independence. For the upcoming election, he has therefore maintained his candidacy. And with a pretty decent fighting chance, too: nearly all the other candidates are professional politicians, and his personal sacrifice facing the political establishment is still fresh in voters’ minds. Alone, the four-star general stands at the helm.