A tour of France

IssueOctober - November 2022
Feature by Marc Morgan

The largest – and historically the most significant – peace group in France is undoubtedly the Mouvement de la Paix (‘Peace Movement’), whose several thousand members are organised in 150 local committees. Founded in 1948, the Mouvement de la Paix was created by Second World War Resistance movements, free thinkers and communists driven both by the struggle against fascism and a revulsion against war.

Closely linked to the Communist Party, the Mouvement de la Paix has been accused of taking a one-sided view of conflicts and indeed of nonviolence itself.

However, since the end of the Cold War, it has broadened its message to encompass both state violence, wherever it originates, and social and economic violence embedded in the structure of society.

At the time of the parliamentary elections in France this summer, I circulated an online survey to peace groups in France to gather material for this article. Seven groups responded, but the Mouvement de la Paix did not.


Two groups which did fill in the PN survey are overtly either Christian or spiritual in their approach. These include the MIR, the French branch of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation.

The MIR believes in social and personal regeneration by local forces as well as individual, spiritual forces. It views the interplay of political forces and political personalities with great scepticism, and is particularly opposed to the pre-eminence given to ‘leaders’ and ‘star performers’.

As Christian Renoux of the MIR puts it: ‘The overriding priority is to change people’s mentality. French political culture focused on the leader (on the right, in the centre and also on the left) is a major obstacle to the commitment and engagement needed from all.’

The MIR puts a particular premium on individual conscience, and as such has been active in its support for Ukrainian and Russian conscientious objectors and ‘dissidents’ more generally.

The other spiritual respondent to our survey is the Communauté de l’Arche (‘the Community of the Ark’). Founded by Lanza del Vasto in 1948, the Communauté de l’Arche believes in political, economic, social and spiritual revolution, and indeed believes that all these strands of revolution are intimately linked.

Open like the MIR to sincere seekers after truth whatever their faith (including none), the Communauté de l’Arche has opened centres in France and in 10 other countries where a simple, communal, sober but optimistic way of life is promoted as the key to both individual and social transformation.

Margaret Hillier, general secretary for international affairs, writes: ‘For us, our way of doing must be the expression of our way of being, we believe as Gandhi does, that we need to be the change which we want to see in the world.’

The French CND?

Two of the movements canvassed in our survey have a very specific focus.

The first of these is Abolition des Armes Nucléaires – Maison de Vigilance. Along with ICAN-France (to which it is affiliated), AAN-MdV is the only nationwide French group whose key objective is the abolition of nuclear weapons.

AAN-MdV has an uphill task in France, particularly in the wake of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine, which has hardened public opinion against disarmament.

However, the emergence of the strong left-wing NUPES political bloc in parliament (see PN 2660) has at least made a discussion of the issues possible.

“French peace movements are divided on Europe and NATO, but are united in denouncing attempts to promote a European military force under the French nuclear umbrella”

In June, 56 French Euro MPs and national parliamentarians, all from the left, published an open letter in Le Monde calling for France to attend the first meeting of the states parties to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, as an observer.

One thing AAN-MdV and all its partner organisations have in common is firm opposition to French posturing on the world stage, particularly when this is backed up with ‘offers’ (or threats) to use the ‘power and prestige’ conferred on France by its nuclear capability.

French peace movements are divided in their views on Europe and even – though most are opposed – on NATO, but all are united in denouncing French attempts to promote a European military force based on ‘protection’ under the French nuclear umbrella.

The French CAAT?

The other organisation with a special focus is the Observatoire des Armements (‘Observatory of Armaments’), a specialist unit based in Lyon which performs extensive independent research on the French arms trade and military industry. It aims, on the basis of objective analysis, to highlight and counter trends towards the militarisation of French society.

Radical in its critique of such militarisation and in its ambitions, the Observatoire is very poised, factual and unemotional in the manner in which it puts its message across.

Patrice Bouveret, co-founder of the Observatoire, writes: ‘it [the war in Ukraine] has accentuated a trend already at work for several years in France whereby rearmament is seen as a means to maintain our standard of living and our privileges in relation to others, in the face of the threats posed by the degradation and excessive exploitation of the planet.’

The Greens

We canvassed one political party in our survey: Europe Ecologies les Verts (Europe Ecology – the Greens) the main French Green party, and an important if junior member of the left-wing NUPES coalition in parliament.

While they have made some notable concessions to ‘realism’ (some members and leaders have approved the sending of arms to Ukraine), EELV work as a leavening force within French politics, actively opposing French nuclear energy and weapons and promoting the nonviolent resolution of conflicts.

Gérard Levy, jointly responsible for the peace and disarmament commission within EELV, is hopeful because of the strength of NUPES, and of EELV within it: ‘EELV believes in a denuclearised Europe, equipped with nonviolent interposition forces, trained in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, as well as in the strengthening of policies and material means to fight against the consequences of climate change (fires, floods, etc). A Europe promoting Canadairs [fire-fighting civilian aircraft] and hospital ships rather than the modernisation of nuclear weapons.’

Nonviolent (not ‘pacifist’)

Of the lay movements considered here, probably the one with which gives itself the broadest remit in terms of promotion of nonviolence is the Mouvement pour une Alternative Non-violente (‘Movement for a Non-violent Alternative’), of which I am a member.

Founded in 1974, the MAN campaigns for nonviolent resolution of conflicts in the political and military sphere of course, but also in economic, social and interpersonal relations.

It is an active participant in the campaigns against nuclear weapons and nuclear energy – with a particular emphasis on the need for unilateral nuclear disarmament.

Above all, the MAN campaigns for education in nonviolence, and for active citizenship (within the context of true participatory democracy).

Here is a warning from Serge Perrin, one of the leading spokespeople for the MAN over many years: ‘We are witnessing a “militarisation” of French society, in particular under the guise of the fight against terrorism, leading to the amalgamation of nonviolent climate activists and terrorists.’

The pacifists

The focus of the Union Pacifiste de France (UPF) – which is the French branch of War Resisters International – is support for conscientious objectors, and the denunciation of militarism and war.

It is uncompromising in its total commitment to pacifism (a word which, incidentally, the MAN rejects). The UPF is one of the most vocal French groups in holding NATO as much to task for the crisis in Ukraine as Russia.

The UPF is also one of the leading campaigners against the Service National Universel (‘Universal National Service’). The SNU is a Macron policy aiming to institute a supposedly civilian national service for young people – which would include ‘information about the defence of the fatherland’.

The project has clearly authoritarian overtones, and is bitterly opposed by most trade unions – particularly teachers’ unions – and by a wide range of protest groups, but is still on the statute books.

In the words of the UPF’s secretary Maurice Montet: ‘We are against all national service. We founded in France the collectif [umbrella group] “Non au SNU” [“No to the SNU”] to abolish the Service National Universel”.