Demilitarising France

IssueJune - July 2024
French peace activist and teacher Alain Refalo. PHOTO: Alain Refalo
Feature by Marc Morgan , Alain Refalo

MM: ‘Alain, in your book Démilitariser la France (Demilitarising France), you indicate that France is the fifth most militarised country in the world. Can you outline some particularly significant elements of this militarisation?

AR: ‘France has the particularity of having a long tradition of militarist symbols. To begin with, there is our national anthem: La Marseillaise, which is a war song. Then there is the 14 July military parade in Paris. There is also a whole narrative about our history built around warrior heroes and war.

‘Regarding concrete aspects of our militarisation, we have a military programming law [setting military budgets and priorities – ed] approximately every five years.

‘The last one was passed last year, the Loi de Programmation Militaire for 2024 – 2030. €413bn were voted for these six years.

‘The military budget has increased very significantly since the election of president [Emmanuel] Macron in 2017. Between 2017 and 2030, the annual defence budget will have increased from from €32bn to €69.1bn, an increase of €3bn to €4bn each year.

‘This law is part of a desire to turn France into a war economy, an expression which is actually used to accelerate arms production. Also, France is still the third country for arms sales in the world.

‘Finally, we still have our nuclear bomb, based on the dogma of nuclear deterrence – which costs €6bn per year.

‘Another aspect is the militarisation of society.

‘There have been agreements between our education establishment and the military since 1982, according to which the military intervene in schools to spread propaganda.

‘The Universal National Service (Service National Universel or SNU) was recently set up, a form of moral recruitment of youth involving the raising of the flag, the singing of the Marseillaise, participation in military commemorations…. It is currently only voluntary, but the intention is to extend the SNU to a whole age group.

‘Recently, president Macron spoke of the civic and moral rearmament of youth. The aim is to get the French used to the idea that peace is behind us and that war therefore must be ahead of us, and we should be ready for war.

‘As for proposals for countering these trends, a relatively simple change would be to demilitarise national commemorations, and to curtail the army’s omnipresence in these. The Marseillaise should be abandoned, as should the 14 July military parade.

‘There is a need to invest in education for peace and nonviolence. The scandalous Eurosatory arms fair should be closed, and arms sales should be stopped, starting with the sale of arms to countries that do not respect human rights, after which we could initiate reconversion of the arms industry.’ [Eurosatory is a giant land/air-land arms exhibition held every two years in Paris – ed]

Alain’s journey

MM: ‘Your nonviolent commitment goes back a very long way. Can you retrace the main stages and say what events and encounters led you to nonviolence?’

AR: ‘My commitment dates from 1981. I was young, 17 or 18, and a strong peace movement developed in Europe (though not particularly in France) to protest against the nuclear arms race.

‘The starting point of my commitment was very simple: billions were being swallowed up in the nuclear arms race and, at the same time, what we then called Third World countries were suffering from poor development and famine. This led me to MAN, the Movement for a Nonviolent Alternative; from there I discovered nonviolence, and the works of Jean-Marie Muller, who was to have a major influence on me.

‘I became a conscientious objector, refused to do military service, and did civilian service instead, at a centre for nonviolent study, La Forge. I got involved in CODENE, the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament in Europe, a small French movement affiliated to the various groups making up European Nuclear Disarmament.

‘I joined the IRNC, the Research Institute for Nonviolent Conflict Resolution, and worked with Jean-Marie and others on a detailed study of nonviolent civilian defence strategies, co-financed by a branch of the ministry of defence and the FNDVA, the National Fund for the Development of Associative Life.

“It is not enough just to protest and to oppose”

‘I have always been fascinated by Leo Tolstoy and published a book on him in 1997, Tolstoy’s Quest for Truth. This enabled me to inform both the general public and some specialists, who knew only the more literary side of Tolstoy’s work, about the passionate quest for peace and nonviolence which dominated the last 30 years of Tolstoy’s life.

‘Thereafter, I continued my work with MAN, with the IRNC, and with various nonviolent publications.

‘In 2023, I co-founded a resource centre now named the Centre de Ressources sur la Non-Violence (Resource Centre for Nonviolence). The centre makes resources available – increasingly online – such as educational tools and co-operative games; it runs courses on nonviolent education, and organises conferences and occasionally major festivals on nonviolence. We target a national audience, and have wide international links in the French-speaking world, in the Middle East and Africa.

‘In my professional life, as a primary school teacher, I have tried to promote nonviolence in small ways, putting the accent on resistance to war rather than on warriors in the teaching of history, for example, or encouraging self-expression by pupils in school councils and other informal fora.’

Positive action

MM: ‘Your kaleidoscopic book Le Paradigme de la Non-violence (The Paradigm of Nonviolence) traces the history of the concept of “nonviolence”, from the founders of the great religions to today, with a special place for Gandhi. What prospects do you see for nonviolence in the modern world?’

AR: ‘I identify three main points that seem to me essential.

‘The first is nonviolence education. It is essential to invest in education and training in nonviolence at all levels.

‘Children should be taught from an early age to manage conflicts without resorting to violence and insults. There are lots of initiatives which already show what could be done to resist and fight against the various forms of violence that exist in our societies.

‘The second critical point, intimately connected with the whole history of nonviolence since Gandhi, is the question of civil resistance.

‘For this, also, training is needed, so that activists everywhere are equipped to experiment with new nonviolent forms of resistance to injustice and tyranny.

‘In France, we are working with the ICNC, the International Centre on Nonviolent Conflict, to build a training program specifically targeting the French-speaking world, Africa in particular.

‘And, finally, the third point that seems important to me is that, at all levels of society, citizens who want things to change should put in place concrete alternatives, even on a small scale.

‘It is not enough just to protest and to oppose; it is necessary to show what can be done in a positive way.

‘Positive concrete achievements are empowering. An example of these would be the Zones to Defend (ZAD or Zone à Défendre in French). These are spaces, usually built around a specific campaign such as opposition to a new airport, which a protest movement has declared no-go zones for the authorities, and where alternative forms of producing, consuming, working and living are experimented.’