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Richard Wood

Interview with Alain Krivine

The Fight for Democratic Rights
in the French Army

(7 February 1970)

From Intercontinental Press, Vol. 8 No, 7, 23 February 1970, pp. 156–158.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

A court-martial in Rennes yesterday convicted and sentenced three conscript soldiers to prison for the “crime” of expressing antimilitarist views and for protesting against the brutal treatment of a fellow soldier by the French army brass.

Serge Devaux was sentenced to one year in jail, Michel Trouilleux to eight months, and Alain Herve to four months.

The three were accused of inciting troops to commit acts of indiscipline. The “proof” consisted of some issues of a mimeographed soldiers’ newspaper, and a draft of a petition, found by the military police in the soldiers’ lockers during an “investigation” last October.

The petition, which the three never had a chance to circulate, protested the beating by a n officer of a fellow soldier in the barracks. The victim had appealed to superior officers and was punished for his temerity with a month in the stockade.

The mimeographed soldiers’ newspaper contained articles on such subjects as why the army should not be used against French workers and in colonial wars, and why soldiers should not fight against the workers in situations such as the May–June 1968 events. It reprinted an anti-militarist appeal published by the CGT [Confédération Generale du Travail – General Confederation of Labor – the Communist party-led union federation] in the 1930s.

Serge Devaux, in a statement to the court, took full responsibility for the newspapers and the petition. The court was surrounded by the notorious CRS [Compagnies Republicaines de Sécurité – Republican Security Companies -an elite paramilitary security police force], who blocked off the center of Rennes to keep some 1,500 supporters of the defendants from getting near the trial.

Students at the university in Rennes held a general strike in support of the soldiers during the trial. When the cut-and-dried proceedings of the court-martial were over, 2,000 persons joined in a rally at the university condemning the convictions. The public was effectively barred from the trial because of the small size of the courtroom, and the widespread sympathy for the defendants was allowed no expression there. Moreover, the place was packed with plain-clothes cops. The only persons admitted were the families of the accused and a few observers, including Michel Rocard and Alain Krivine, last year’s presidential candidates respectively of the PSU [Parti Socialiste Unifié – United Socialist party] and the LC [Ligue Communiste – Communist League the French section of the Fourth International]. The soldiers stationed at Rennes were sent out of town the day of the trial.

Great battles

The great battles of the French army.
“Who said Dien Bien Phu?”

[The defense called Krivine and Rocard as witnesses, and introduced a letter from Jean-Paul Sartre on behalf of the defendants. The prosecution opposed allowing Krivine and Rocard to speak. The February 7–8 issue of Paris-Jour reported the exchange:

[“When the former [Krivine] presented himself at the bar, Colonel Vanier observed that the witness had no direct knowledge of the facts.

[“Presiding judge: ‘In that case, it would be a personal statement.’

[“Defense: ‘This is a tradition in political cases!’

[“Colonel Vanier: ‘We haven’t gone that far.’

[“Finally the presiding judge allowed Alain Krivine to speak, ‘so that he could say what he thought were Devaux’s motives.”’ [The February 7–8 issue of l’Aurore reported Krivine’s testimony: “The draftees of today,” he said, “are part of the generation of the events of May and June 1968. They have become conscious, in a profound sense, of certain words: citizens, democracy, liberty ...”

[“They have tasted discussion,” Krivine added, according to the February 7–8 issue of Le Figaro, “they did not want to abandon their ideas when they became workers in uniform. Their gesture is a rejection of support for an army which is completely at the service of a specific social class.”

[Rocard, Le Figaro reported, declared that the army “has become a place of ideological regimentation ... Those in uniform have the right to think. They should not be persecuted for a crime of opinion which does not exist in civil life.”]

The sentences were exactly those demanded by the army prosecutor. He singled out Devaux as the “ringleader” and insinuated that there was “sabotage” in Devaux’s barracks after he was arrested, “which resulted in the death of one soldier.” He also asked for the stiff sentence against Devaux to set an “example,” because, he said, the “subversive” movement is growing inside the French army.

Today I discussed the case with Alain Krivine, who has been active in organizing support for the three soldiers. Krivine himself was in the army when he ran for president of France last May, and is well acquainted with conditions in the army.

“Serge Devaux was arrested on October 23,” Krivine explained, “and after further investigation, the other two were also arrested. They have been held in the stockade ever since. Many soldiers in Devaux’s barracks were questioned, along the lines of, ‘Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Trotskyist party?”’

Serge Devaux says he is in political solidarity with the Ligue Communiste.

The French military code denies soldiers their right to participate in political and trade-union activities. They cannot even join a political party or trade union nominally, although the regulations are vague about conscripts who were members of such organizations before being inducted.

“The three first appealed to the Ligue Communiste for support and help in November,” Krivine said. “At first the LC began to publicize the case, but it was very difficult to get anything into the daily press, including the left press.

“This began to change with the formation of the Committee for the Release of the Imprisoned Soldiers, which was supported by figures like Jean-Paul Sartre, and organizations like the PSU and Lutte Ouvrière [Workers Struggle], as well as the Ligue Communiste. This committee is a broad defense committee, and has now gathered considerable support throughout the country. On January 27, a press conference was held with Sartre, Rocard, and myself. Although only Agence France-Presse and two smaller provincial papers sent representatives to the conference, the story was picked up by Le Monde, and the daily press since then has given extensive coverage to the case.

“The army’ll make a man out of you.”

“In the two weeks since the press conference, the Committee for the Release of the Imprisoned Soldiers has spread out at a tremendous rate. Hundreds of local chapters of the committee have been organized in the high schools, universities, neighborhoods, factories, etc. About 600,000 leaflets on the case have been distributed up to now, and 50,000 posters put up, throughout France.

“The number of endorsers of the original call of the committee has grown considerably, with thousands of workers, unionists, students, etc., signing the appeal. Even local union leaders of the CGT have supported the campaign, as well as local unions of the CFDT [Confédération Franç aise Democratique du Travail – French Democratic Confederation of Labor]. The CFDT ran a sympathetic article in their national newspaper, Syndicalisme [Unionism].”

There were meetings and demonstrations of solidarity with the victimized soldiers in many towns. One of the most important was a meeting in Rennes itself, where the trial was held.

On January 29, 3,500 persons participated in the largest political meeting for any cause in the memory of the people of Rennes. The Communist party had urged its supporters to stay away from the meeting branding it as “adventurist” although l’Humanité, the official CP newspaper, felt constrained to oppose the proceedings against the soldiers.

“The committee is receiving fifty to 100 letters of support every day,” Krivine said, “and a significant number are from soldiers. There has been a good response among the soldiers themselves to this case.” Under French military law, the court-martial conviction of the three soldiers can only be appealed to the Cour de cussation [Supreme Court of Appeal], and only on the basis of technicalities and not on the content of the proceedings. I asked Krivine how the campaign will continue under these circumstances.

“The most pressing problem that the committee is now fighting,” he said, “is to establish that the imprisoned soldiers are political prisoners and should have rights as political prisoners. Now they are classified as common criminals, which means they can, have no newspapers from the outside, no radios, no watches, and only the books found in the prison library. They cannot leave their cells, except for a forty-five-minute exercise period during the day.

“Second, the axis of the campaign remains centered around the immediate release of the soldiers, and we plan to continue to build wide support for this demand.

“Also, the committee plans to continue to fight for the general political rights of soldiers. Already there are other cases similar to this-one, which the committee will take on. Three soldiers stationed in Landau, West Germany – Joseph Divet, Jean-Louis Fauthoux, and Jean-Michel Banet – face similar charges.”

Besides giving full support to the Committee for the Release of the Imprisoned Soldiers, the Ligue Communiste is developing its own program for the army.

Krivine explained that certain bourgeois forces want to reform the incredibly archaic French army, and that such a reform is expected to be debated in parliament in April. This provides a n opportunity for revolutionists to discuss the role of the army itself. The arguments of the “modernizers” center on the experience of May-June 1968, when it became clear that the common soldiers, and even a section of the professional soldiers, would not allow themselves to be used against the workers.

“Some bourgeois forces,” Krivine said, “want to ‘democratize’ the army, by making a r m y service obligatory for all youth when they reach eighteen or nineteen, in order to ‘educate’ them in ‘patriotism.’ They hope to be able to stem the youth revolt in this way.”

The Ligue Communiste has put out a pamphlet on the role of the army under capitalism, which explains the need for an army under the control of the working class and peasantry. As immediate demands, the LC has raised the following:

  1. Stop all forms of persecution and intimidation;
  2. end the two-month period of forced confinement to the barracks during basic training;
  3. recognize the right to leave the base after a day’s work (eight hours);
  4. grant free transportation for the draftees;
  5. establish full freedom of expression and access to information, including the right to read all newspapers a n d political books, and the right to attend political meetings [at present, all left-wing newspapers are forbidden to soldiers];
  6. raise wages to a minimum of 150 francs [US$27] a month;
  7. recognize the right to wear civilian dress while off the base;
  8. station soldiers as close to their homes as possible;
  9. grant regular passes and leaves as a right, not a privilege; and
  10. extend the right of university students, to deferments to all young workers participating in job training or technical courses.

February 7

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