Every year, the chief of the French army addresses the young officers graduating from the prestigious Saint-Cyr military academy. But this year, there was a break with tradition. General Elrick Irastroza did not just give the standard talk on rules of command: he reminded his audience of Article 1 of the Constitution, which establishes Frances prized secularism, or laïcité, and freedom of belief.
His comments on the Constitution were hardly a casual choice. He was making reference to the poisonous issue of Benoit Julien de Pommerol, a controversial military chaplain stationed last year in Afghanistan.
Last summer, after a tour of duty in Afghanistan, Pommerol wrote an end-of-mission report denouncing the French armys deference to and almost servile fear of Islam. He went on to accuse the army of babouche-licking. Less than a year later, the chaplain is adamant: Its not charitable to keep scandals under wraps.
In his report, Julien cites several examples of what he sees as deviances: female soldiers wearing the veil, building mosques with French taxpayers money, and preparing an end-of-Ramadan feast for Afghans.
Strikes chord with some soldiers
The Pommerol report should have remained a secret. Instead, it was published on the Internet, sparking extreme reactions among growing tensions towards Islam in France. Many Catholic soldiers rejected the report. For others, however, the chaplains words seem to have struck a cord.
I dont think we can speak of Islamophobia, but if this report was exploited, that means it fits with national sensitivities that can be referred to as anti-Islamic, admits Luc Ravel, a military bishop. He believes the chaplains report to be troubling in form, violent, excessive and obsessive. But he refuses to judge its meaning, and questions the nature of the reported facts. Were these misinterpreted acts of respect or orders of submission?
There are no other instructions to be given other than the texts that guarantee secularism, said the chief of the French armed forces. Then its a matter courtesy, common sense and education to respect other peoples religion. The army admitted a mistake, regarding the order given to a female soldier to cover her head, but denied Pommerols other accusations.
French Foreign Minister Gerard Longuet called the report exaggerated or vague, saying the French army has been trying to earn acceptance by respecting local customs. That a soldier was asked to cover her head was in no way a general rule of behavior ( ) but a specific decision made in a specific operational context. The context, in this case, was a joint mission with the Afghan army.
In September, Julien will become the military chaplain in the French Antilles. This is not a punishment, according to Longuets entourage.
Photo credit - Isafmedia