The French military establishment is an unlikely inspiration for struggles for peace and justice. Between 1962 and 2011 there were an estimated 125 French military operations abroad, many in the service of Françafrique, a postcolonial reworking of French imperialism in Africa. France is still one of the biggest exporters of weapons to repressive regimes, and its army enjoys an institutional clout rare in any democratic societies.
Perhaps because of this gloomy picture, it is little known that one of France’s leading voices for anti-militarism and social activism hails from the highest echelons of the French army. General Jacques Pâris de Bollardière left the French army in 1957 in protest against its extensive use of torture in its colonial war in Algeria. When he referred to this barbarism in the French press, he was jailed for two months.
France’s youngest general at the time and a celebrated hero of the French resistance against Nazism, de Bollardière consciously abandoned an illustrious career. In postcolonial France, many of his officer peers put their experience and credentials at the service of neocolonialism in Africa or lent their expertise in torture to Latin American dictatorships. But de Bollardière became a forceful advocate of nonviolence and a leading scourge of militarism, nuclear weapons, and social injustice before his death in 1986.
Besides his striking nonviolent direct actions and countless public interventions, de Bollardière’s name was a constant feature alongside the likes of Jean-Paul Sartre in petitions for progressive causes. Coming from very different backgrounds and perspectives, their paths did not otherwise cross. But de Bollardière would have made an excellent subject for the core question at the heart of Sartre’s philosophical inquiries: what history makes you, and what you make of yourself.
With De Gaulle
Born in 1907 in Brittany in northwestern France, de Bollardière grew up in a traditionalist Catholic environment which prized the traditions of the French military and colonialism. The army ran in the family: Jacques was part of the fourth generation to enlist, as was his brother, who was killed during the Rif War in Morocco, where their father had brought the family in 1916. Enthralled by this North African country, as well as de Bollardière’s senior’s recollections of his time in Indochina, the family’s attachment to the French empire was anchored not in domination and personal enrichment, but curiosity for the exotic and a romanticized view of service and sacrifice.
In 1927, de Bollardière enrolled at the Saint-Cyr military academy, the French equivalent of Sandhurst or West Point. But seeds of doubt about his military vocation were already slowly sprouting.
He found the academy’s atmosphere to be mind-numbing, as its military form of socialization instilled an ethos of blind obedience. With the German occupation of France from 1940, many of his classmates uncritically served the Nazi-collaborationist French Vichy regime. De Bollardière considered his rebelliousness and instinctive antipathy to conditioning key to his decision to combat Nazi barbarism in the forces of the French Resistance.
It was in the Second World War that de Bollardière cemented his military reputation. In February 1940, he was assigned to the 13th Foreign Legion half-brigade and promoted to captain. He took part in the Battle of Narvik, where Allied troops tried and failed to confront the Nazi onslaught against Norway. He arrived back in France in time to witness the humiliating June 1940 armistice with Germany. Opting to continue the fight from abroad, de Bollardière crossed the English Channel on a fishing boat and was among the very first to join Charles de Gaulle in the wake of his famous June 18, 1940 appeal to continue fighting.
Bollardière was thus sentenced to death by the Vichy regime while he was absent from France. During that time, he fought in Gabon and Eritrea during the East African Campaign — actions which earned him the award of the Compagnon de la Libération. Promoted to Major in 1941, he took part in the capture of Damascus that summer, and the following year in the Battle of Bir Hakeim and the first Battle of El Alamein.
Although already seriously wounded by a mine, in October 1943 he volunteered for Special Forces training and was put on a parachute training course. In April 1944, he was parachuted into France to take a command in the maquis Resistance unit in the Ardennes forest in eastern France. His maquis units engaged German troops and sustained heavy casualties but made a successful link with the advancing Allied ground forces.
In September 1944, de Bollardière returned to England. He was then posted to the Red Berets and parachuted into the Netherlands, from where his campaign took him into the newly defeated Germany in 1945.
Indochina to Algeria
Soon after Japan’s defeat in 1945, war resumed in Indochina (today, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam), as local liberation movements sought to resist the reimposition of French colonial rule. On the French side, de Bollardière commanded a paratrooper half-brigade, taking part in commando actions. But his doubts about the morality and efficacy of warfare continued to develop.
He later recalled how he misunderstood the French war effort as a restoration of legitimate French authority after the Japanese occupation, imagining a kind of fraternal occupation based on close contact with the local inhabitants. Yet he could not escape the thought that he was not a liberator but an occupier, that the Vietnamese nationalist forces resembled nothing so much as the maquis he had led only months before.
De Bollardière hardly had time to digest this realization before he was posted to Algeria in 1956. Lasting nearly eight years between 1954 and 1962, the French-Algerian war is often considered the paradigmatic war of decolonization. Birthing an independent Algerian nation, it was also the epicenter of political upheaval in France, as the postwar Fourth French Republic cracked under the weight of the conflict.
General de Gaulle’s 1958 assumption of monocratic presidential powers, replacing the parliamentary system, laid constitutional foundations that are still in place today. Because Algeria had been incorporated as an integral part of France in 1848, the French state portrayed the war as an exercise in internal “pacification.” The intensity and protracted nature of the conflict saw France deploy 2 million soldiers, more than 1.2 million of whom were conscripts, to subdue the Algerian nationalist forces of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).
De Bollardière would not yet abandon the old military ideal of a colonialism of service and fraternity. He understood “pacification” very differently from its institutionalization in violent French counterinsurgency, including the systematic use of torture. His command was staked on developing relations between the European settler community and indigenous Algerians, taking the protection of both equally seriously, refusing to view every Muslim as a suspect, and initiating work projects to secure employment and an income for the local population. This involved the cooperation and development of mutual trust between French troops and the local inhabitants.
De Bollardière’s faith and commitment did not escape FLN leaders. Mohammed Lebjaoui, a member for the National Council of the Algerian Revolution recollected that, “for me, a national leader of the Algerian revolution, and for all my comrades on the leadership of the FLN, General de Bollardière always represented in the fight, as an enemy, the honor of the French uniform and flag. He was the only general in the French army in Algeria who compelled and deserved our respect.”
Notwithstanding such endorsements, there was real naivety in de Bollardière’s thinking about the possibilities of empire. His experiments could not be replicated on any large scale in a colonial system. This fundamental antagonism exploded in 1957, as the FLN mounted a renewed campaign of urban terrorism and the French military escalated torture as a tool of maintaining French domination. This was particularly notable in the Battle of Algiers, unforgettably depicted in Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1966 film of the same name.
It was, above all, this plague of torture that concentrated de Bollardière’s growing doubts about the justice of the French mission in North Africa: “The Battle of Algiers was waiting for me as a final test, at the end of the hard road on which I had embarked. It compelled me to make a definitive choice and marked a turning point in my life.” De Bollardière made clear to General Jacques Massu — superintendent of the military operation of the Battle of Algiers — the contempt in which he held his actions and requested his own removal from Algeria.
In March 1957 L’Express magazine — whose editor, Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber, had been under his command as a conscript in Algeria, and now faced legal troubles — published an open letter by de Bollardière in defense of its coverage of the war. Charged with bringing the army into disrepute, de Bollardière was jailed for sixty days.
His stand impacted both French and Algerian combatants. The writer Gilles Perrault, at that time a young conscript, reflected that de Bollardière’s stand made a profound impression on him and his fellow conscripts. Ali Ammar, president of the Association of Algerians in Europe, recalled his reaction to de Bollardière’s move, as a twenty-year-old man who had himself been tortured by the French: “the voice of the general revealed to us, to us Algerian militants, that in this desert of barbarism there were some oases of humanity.”
Leaving Active Duty and Move to Nonviolence
Following the April 1961 Generals’ putsch to remove President de Gaulle and secure French Algeria, de Bollardière’s disillusionment with the army was complete, and he withdrew from active service. Moving back to his native Brittany, in December 1961 he took up a position at a naval construction business in Lorient, employing 350–400 people.
Initially enthused by this fresh start, de Bollardière was quickly disenchanted. In keeping with his growing sensitivity to systemic injustice that he only slowly realized in relation to imperialism, this job was an apprenticeship in the violence and alienation of wage labor:
I discovered a new form of violence that I had not suspected, because it is subtle, invisible, but permanent: the violence of structures. The watchwords here were competition, productivity, profitability. Man is first and foremost a factor of production; he must endlessly reproduce the same action where understanding counts for nothing as long as it is efficient.
Hierarchy in the army, he reflected, had not at all precluded communication and good relations with his men. In his experience of wage labor, conversely, communication was blocked, and a sharp antagonism separated workers from bosses and managers.
De Bollardière resolved to study and reflect on these aspects of the world of work, absorbing the publications of social Catholic circles. This largely forgotten current of thought insisted on the primacy of humanity over structures, advocating a deep reform of society and questioning the justice of capitalism.
But de Bollardière found that his reflection on industrial relations did not abate his powerlessness to effect change at the shipyard, despite his attempts at administrative reform. After two and a half years, he concluded that this environment was inevitably dehumanizing, and quit.
De Bollardière’s evolving views were also shaped by his work in the field of public housing, largely for immigrants from North Africa but also Portugal, Yugoslavia, and sub-Saharan Africa. Likewise, he threw himself into the provision of adult education, which he described as a particularly enriching experience. As a catalyst to continual self-reflection and questioning existing conceptions and values, he was convinced it had great potential to humanize society. He was also drawn to the regionalist movement in his native Brittany. His developing grasp of social and economic structures manifested itself in an interpretation comparable to an analysis of uneven development, seeing the decline of Breton culture and its relative economic underdevelopment as twin symptoms of a centralizing French state.
In this, he was at one with one of the most important developments in French regionalism through the 1960s and 1970s. Eschewing traditionalism rooted in the land, this sense of locality was coupled to a global vision, connecting to issues of colonialism, economic and ecological justice, and capitalist predation on a planetary scale. As de Bollardière put it, the same French state that ran roughshod over Breton or Basque culture had likewise repressed Vietnamese and Algerian identity.
The defining moment of his life, however, was the discovery of the nonviolence movement.
In November 1970 a conference took place in Lorient with Jean-Marie Muller, whose activism for nonviolence combined social Catholicism with the examples of figures like Martin Luther King Jr, Cesar Chavez, and especially Gandhi. De Bollardière was brought along to the conference by his wife, Simone. As he described the encounter, “It had a profound effect on me: what I had thought up to then confusedly, I heard formulated in clear and coherent language.”
De Bollardière approached Muller after the talk and told him how much his presentation answered his own questions. Muller, in turn, told de Bollardière how important his rupture with the army and torture had on his own development. Muller had been conscripted to Algeria, arriving as the time of the ceasefire. Not yet committed to nonviolence, he deepened his reading of the Bible and Gandhi and sent back his military papers to the Ministry of Defence in 1969, for which he was put on trial. The following year, the practical application of his Gandhian commitment led him to observe a fifteen-day fast in protest against the delivery of sixteen French Mirage fighter jets to Brazil, where the regime was torturing dissidents.
From this point, de Bollardière embraced the nonviolence movement with the zeal of the converted and played a key part in the foundation of the Movement for a Non-Violent Alternative (MAN, in the deliberate French acronym). Crucially, de Bollardière saw this not as a conversion, but rather as the discovery of the appropriate means to express his aspirations to fight for man that had motivated — but had ultimately been thwarted and frustrated in — his military career.
Massu to Mururoa
This new direction in de Bollardière’s life might have passed unnoticed but for the return of Algeria to the front pages of the French papers. In 1971, General Massu published The Real Battle of Algiers. In this belated response to Pontecorvo’s film, he justified torture in Algeria on the grounds of necessity and efficacy.
De Bollardière launched himself into writing a riposte — Battle of Algiers, Battle for Man. He presented the reader with his own military credentials and experience as collateral for his claim that Massu was simply wrong about the efficacy of torture in Algeria, and that the spread of this practice in the contemporary world achieved nothing so much as profound self-defeat and self-degradation. As French torturers trained in Algeria exported their trade to dictatorial Latin American regimes in the 1970s, this was a point of no small importance.
De Bollardière’s growing appeal to radical French youth in the 1970s was compounded the following year with the protest against renewed French nuclear bomb tests. By 1973, only China and France persisted in air nuclear weapons tests. The bomb was a centerpiece of the Gaullist foreign policy aims of international status and independence.
With Algerian independence precluding further tests in the Sahara, the Mururoa atoll in French Polynesia in the South Pacific was selected as the new site for tests. These continued from 1966 to 1995 amid considerable international controversy — not least when the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior was blown up by French secret services in Auckland in 1985 prior to its intended departure for Mururoa. In view of a planned French test in the summer of 1973, de Bollardière and a small group of activists, including Muller, made their way to the Cook Islands, and the thousand miles onward by private boat to Mururoa to put themselves in the way of the planned nuclear launch.
The environmental fallout of tests at Mururoa has long been considered potentially catastrophic. But for de Bollardière this was not merely an environmental question. It called into question the meaning of civilization, and how massive expenditure on death-dealing weaponry could be reconciled with any conception of global development worthy of the name.
De Bollardière again drew lessons from his military career, remarking to Tahitian newspapers that in the Second World War he had fought in Libya for the liberation of man side by side with local comrades from the Pacific Battalion. “For me today in Polynesia,” he continued, “this is about the same fight: to liberate man from the monstrous chain reaction of nuclear escalation, which threatens the very foundation of our civilization.”
The group managed to secure a small boat and skipper, the Fri, to take them towards the French test site. Before reaching the atoll, French forces violently intercepted and hijacked the boat. Removed from the area so that the bomb could be dropped unmolested, the crew commenced a hunger strike to protest their arbitrary detention, which they vowed to continue until they recovered their liberty as French citizens.
De Bollardière suffered an onset of hypertension after five days of hunger strike and was flown back to Paris. He remained in the hospital until his health recovered, but not before he was sanctioned by the Pompidou government with his removal from the army (up to this point, de Bollardière remained a general but no longer on active duty).
In protest against the treatment of the group of activists and French policy, de Bollardière sent back his Legion d’Honneur — the highest French order of merit for military and civil attainments. This was not only in protest against the treatment of the group and against French nuclear policy but also connected to the issue of defense much more broadly. De Bollardière singled out the French arms industry and its worldwide commerce, and French diplomatic failure to engage with international disarmament processes.
From Larzac to Larzac
De Bollardière also brought the question of defense back home to France with his continued defense of the movement in the Larzac plateau in southern France to protest plans to extend a French army camp, thus endangering the livelihoods of the local farmers. De Bollardière publicized his support for this pivotal French protest movement in his piece in Le Monde in July 1976, “From Larzac to Larzac.”
In celebration of the movement’s bringing together of peasants and conscientious objectors, and their civil disobedience against the army, de Bollardière recalled that he had been deployed to Larzac in 1940 as preparation for the Battle of Narvik. The Larzac movement was a fitting parallel, since, again, he was fighting for the same values now.
Referring to the French army’s threat to the region, de Bollardière wrote that,
I belonged to this army for more than thirty years. It was from this Larzac, which today refuses to die, that I departed in April 1940 with the 13th half-brigade of the Foreign legion to liberate Narvik. Just like that day, more strongly even, I today share the certainty that the peasants of Larzac are expressing the need, so that life has a meaning, to fight against everything that tends daily to transform men into resigned and passive instruments in the hands of other men.
François Mitterrand’s incoming Socialist government scrapped plans for the army camp at Larzac in 1981. Yet, Mitterrand, in whom the French movement had invested many of its hopes, proved a disappointment. He reneged on his earlier positions against France’s nuclear bomb, as his French Socialist Party (PS), and indeed the French Communist Party, converged with the Gaullists’ nuclear policy in the late 1970s.
De Bollardière, alongside intellectuals and, notably, the farmers of Larzac, mobilized against this development. In this view, defense policy, including the bomb, was not something that could be detached from social policy as a whole. As such, he was active in trying to fashion an alternative to the disappointment of the Socialist Party, as well as a Stalinized French Communist Party.
This crystallized in the Front Autogestionnaire (Front for Self-Management), to whose platform de Bollardière cleaved closely in his activism, which continued to his death in 1986. He untiringly denounced the bomb as ineffective, irrational, criminally dangerous, and an obscene priority over issues like global hunger. What is more, democratic socialism, in this view, was seriously undermined by current defense policy since it insinuated itself in antidemocratic social structures and norms. Intuiting the relationship between technology and social organization, de Bollardière condemned its inevitable concentration of power in the hands of elites over the masses.
From Past to Present
The snubbing by major TV networks of the 2004 documentary A Single Battle about de Bollardière’s life and activism is indicative of his neglect since his death. A brief exception was in the aftermath of the trial of Maurice Papon in 1997–1998. As Prefect of Police for Paris, Papon had presided over the police killings of up to 200 unarmed Algerian immigrant demonstrators on October 17, 1961.
The charges against him, though, were limited to his role in deporting around 1,600 Jews from Bordeaux as a French civil servant between 1942 and 1944. His defense was staked in large part on the obedience required as a servant of the French state.
Writing to Le Monde in 1999, veteran activists against torture in the Algerian war, including Pierre Vidal-Naquet and Germaine Tillion, suggested that Papon’s defense and conviction highlighted the importance of de Bollardière, and that government sanctions against him should be retroactively lifted. Indeed, de Bollardière’s example of refusal as self-affirmation, and a solidarity that made no compromise with personal career ambitions or success, is one of the chief values of revisiting the twists and turns of his life.
In his effort to reconcile constancy and conversion, his steadfastness did not preclude doubt. He continually reconsidered his most fundamental formative ideas and values. Awareness that his knowledge was imperfect was never a rationale for inaction.
Even among his admirers, not everyone will be convinced by his unhesitating advocacy of Gandhian nonviolence. We might remember Ho Chi Minh’s remark that had Gandhi attempted his campaign of civil disobedience in Indochina rather than India, “he would long since have ascended into heaven.” Yet, de Bollardière’s case, and that of MAN more generally, was all the stronger for being backed up both by impressive, and often costly, acts of nonviolent disobedience, and its eloquent argument that violence cannot be quarantined from the broader society in or from which it is exercised.
His message also had the virtue of eschewing certain tendencies to address lessons about nonviolence to victims of violence, or to dilute its demands for the very most violent states. It recognized how subtle modes of domination are themselves violent, and took the commitment to a democratic socialism not as a supplement to nonviolence but as its very condition.
In France’s comparatively weak peace movement, de Bollardière’s contribution was to harness his military credentials to the message that violence has an inexorable proclivity to corrode relations not only between states, but also individuals and communities, and that it privileges antidemocratic values and structures of domination. He recognized the resources required to maintain the capacity for self-destruction are an obscene digression from the global provision of material well-being and justice necessary for properly human relations. At a time when so many are doubling down on that self-destruction, the example of de Bollardière’s life suggests how we might break free of it.