French Conscientious Objection to the Algerian War

By Alexander Gunnar Raboisson

The right to conscientious objections remains a blurred area in which the applicability of it differs from nation to nation. If we read the factsheet on conscientious objections of the European court of human rights, it is easy to observe that it has in the past not been prevalent within the European Court of Human Rights (few reports of conscientious objectors (CO) in EHCR). While the EHCR did explicitly recognise the right to conscientious objection in 2011 (EBCO report on the status of COs in EU), there are few mentions of cases on contentious objections on the factsheet. While it is probable that there are not many cases that reached the EHCR, I think it is reasonable to conclude that it remains a niche question.

But I want to draw our attention to a specific country. France is an interesting case when it comes to a right to conscientious objection, as the right to not perform military duty was only recognised after the Algerian war of Independence (1954-1962) during which France first witnessed a considerable amount of “réfractaire”, those who refused to perform military service for any reason. The military archives show that out of 1,200,000 young French men called for service 12,000 or about 1% refused to go to war, a rate about as high what the USA witnessed in Vietnam. The wars in Algeria and in Indochina were particularly unpopular. Many French people believed it was time to relinquish the colonies which made them unwilling to partake in the conflict. The young men that were to be sent to war felt that this was not of their time, the government was holding on to colonies that belonged to the ancient order. But the price for disobedience was high, the only alternative to military service was 5 years in prison which could be repeated in some cases, similar to what COs currently face in Turkey. Support for the cause of COs was low; the government was unwilling to provide any legal protection for COs and the general population was not necessarily in support of the cause. A study done in 1962 amongst older college students found that 43% of those asked found that refusing to perform military service was an inexcusable fault.

Soldiers of the National Liberation Army during the Algerian War of Independence. Zdravvko Pecar. Museum of African Art. Belgrade. 1958. CC By SA 4.0.

At first those who refused to serve were not keen on labelling themselves as COs, due to the contentious nature of the label, a group of Christian soldiers in 1955 stated in a text distributed during a mass organised at the Church of Saint-Séverin, that their “conscience rises up” and that they refuse to fire upon their Muslim brothers. This discontent continued to increase, with demonstrations by soldiers who were called up again for the war, with several hundred of them occurring during the months of April to July 1956. The conduct of the war was unacceptable, with accounts of many atrocities coming back across the Mediterranean strengthening the resolve of those who deemed that the war was wrong. Stories of torture and rape were common as ex-soldiers brought back their testaments and traumas from the war. In June 1956, the ACJF (Association Catholique de la Jeunesse Francaise) issued a circular that intended to guide soldiers on how to react to what was called “immoral orders”. It was a Christian duty to not conduct “collective repression and other war crimes”. The association deemed that disobedience in the face of immoral orders was not a choice but a necessity, as “nothing is lost before Christ should a soldier not give a Christian response in any given situation.”

While many of the groups that advocated for the right to not serve stemmed from Catholic ideals, they did not find support within the Church. In fact, the Church at the time was critical of those who refused to serve and reminded the faithful of their duty to the nation. At first the Church even refused to condemn torture with officials stating that it was sometimes a necessity to protect the interests of the state. The Church eventually reversed this stance, as the French Assembly of Cardinals and Archbishops condemned torture and other abuses, but still prohibited disobedience to “legitimate” authority even though the same authorities perpetrated such crimes. A conflict was breeding within the Church with dissident clergy and Catholic activists advocating for conscientious objector status to be officially recognised and the hierarchy of the Catholic Church staunchly against it. Cardinal Feltin felt that every man owed it to his country to defend it, and that a strong army is necessary to impose the peace. He also condemned Catholics who drew their own conclusion about the war: It was the duty of the Church to teach the truth, not for the faithful to make their own truth.

Barricades set up during the War of Independence. January 1960. Street of Algier. Michael Marcheau. CC by SA 2.5.

This division within the Church became all the more prevalent during the trial of Jean Pezet, as he refused to serve in the army on the basis that he could not reconcile military service with his Catholic conscience. This trial raised the question as to what it means to be a Christian, as the court and the Church held that his reasoning is strictly unchristian as their understanding of Christendom entailed that you must always obey the state. The lawyer of Pezet, Jean-Jacques de Felice, a protestant lawyer who during the war defended those who refused to serve in the army, wanted to demonstrate to the court and the jury that his client was a genuine Catholic not despite this stance, but because of it. The aim was to make the court and the government commissioner change their understanding of Catholicism on obedience to authority, to a new model in which individual conscience held primacy, allowing the faithful to choose between obedience and disobedience. Jean Pezet was at the end of the trial sentenced to 18 months in prison. The prerogative to punish Pezet remained, but the testimony of Catholic witnesses at the trial belied the claim of the government’s commissioner that Catholics must reject conscientious objection. Pezet and his followers in a way anticipated the eventual reorientation of the Catholic Church during the Second Vatican Council in which the Church accepted conscientious objection in 1965. The number of individuals that refused to serve increased right after the war, as the graph below shows, but also up until conscription was scrapped in 1997

Source: http://www.cairn.info/

The trial was one of many events leading to eventual legal recognition of COs by the French state but the catalyst was the hunger strike started by anarchist and pacifist activist Louis Lecoin at the age of 74 in protest against the imprisonment of 150 COs. His strike lasted for 22 days until Prime Minister George Pompidou introduced a bill to the parliament. The final bill was a watered-down version of what was first proposed. It enabled the possibility for those that did not want to serve to be allowed to opt out, but it entailed an arduous process that would often take months or even years to come to fruition. Jean-Jacques de Felice continued to fight for those that refused to serve until long after the war, but his goal was nevertheless quite successful.

Sources:

Auvray, Michel. “Jean-Jacques De Félice Et Les Objecteurs De Conscience : Une Cause Commune.” Matériaux Pour L’histoire De Notre Temps 115-116, no. 1 (2015): 44-51.

Cain, Edward R. “Conscientious Objection in France, Britain, and the United States.” Comparative Politics 2, no. 2 (1970): 275-307.

Johnston-White, Rachel M. “A New Primacy of Conscience? Conscientious Objection, French Catholicism and the State during the Algerian War.” Journal of Contemporary History 54, no. 1 (January 2019): 112–38.

Quemeneur Tramor, Une guerre sans « non » ? Insoumissions, refus d’obéissance et désertions de soldats français pendant la guerre d’Algérie (1954-1962): Université Paris VIII, 2007

Quémeneur, Tramor. “Le Statut Des Objecteurs De Conscience Une Bataille Juridique Et Politique.” Matériaux Pour L’histoire De Notre Temps 115-116, no. 1 (2015): 35-43.