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Bénédicte Chéron: "The July 14th parade is a reflection of the political concerns of the moment".

Bénédicte Chéron is a historian and lecturer at the Institut Catholique de Paris (ICP), and a member of the Scientific Council of the IHEDN. A specialist in the relationship between the armed forces and society and how the military is portrayed, she looks at the impact of the 14 July parade, the "moral forces" and the image of the armed forces in today's society, particularly among young people.
THE THEME OF THIS YEAR'S 14 JULY PARADE WAS "MORAL FORCES". WHAT DOES THIS CONCEPT MEAN? DOES IT REFER TO THE NATION AS OPPOSED TO THE ARMED FORCES?

The expression "moral forces" has made a big comeback in the public arena since Russia's invasion of Ukraine. It has almost replaced another word, 'resilience', which had invaded the public debate in the context of the health crisis, after a few years of gradual emergence. In their usage, these terms refer to questions that revolve around a central axis: how would society, of which armies are a part, behave and hold up in a context of serious adversity?

The difficulty lies in the abundant use of this expression without a precise definition of these contexts of adversity and the different levels of action they imply. The plastic nature of these words means that everyone can use them in a way that makes sense, but there is also a risk: talking about "moral forces" or "resilience" without any other form of precision can avoid a clear debate on an infinite variety of subjects. We need to be able to reflect collectively on the material resources given to armies and the training of military personnel, as well as on the question of social cohesion and the capacity of civilian structures to function in peacetime as well as in chaotic contexts. These debates also include the question of the political project that citizens adopt and which, in a democracy, inevitably gives rise to divisions.

"IT IS NECESSARY TO DEFINE "MORAL FORCES"".

Not all of these subjects are of the same order, and there is a risk that squeezing them all into one will be detrimental to the proper consideration of each of these fields. For example, as history has shown, it is always dangerous to make armies the backbone of the nation's "moral forces" without defining them in terms of both their tangible and intangible characteristics.

Without clarity on these debates, the abundant use of the expression "moral forces" may be much more a symptom of a society that perceives itself to be in crisis, than a solution to that crisis. This was already partly the case in the inter-war period, when the expression was also widely used, in the singular as well as the plural, before the 1930s swept away all these invocations in their wake.

Ultimately, history shows that a society's ability to withstand adversity and to adopt behaviours that collectively enable it to emerge from it depends on a complex alchemy between circumstances and political and social mechanisms that precede adversity, and changes in these behaviours and mechanisms that are difficult to predict when extraordinary circumstances arise.

Research on resilience, which is more abundant in the UK than in France, shows that human groups behave in ways that are all the more adapted to a variety of circumstances, when the different possible scenarios of adversity have been clearly presented and discussed in the public arena, not to frighten and crush any debate, but on the contrary to enable individuals and groups to project themselves. It is therefore necessary to provide a clear overview: a health crisis is not a war, and dealing with a politically inert risk such as an environmental disaster is not the same as confronting a threat that leads to political confrontation.

WHY DO YOU PREFER THE TERM "MILITARY-SOCIETY RELATIONS"? À WHAT IS THE "ARMY-NATION LINK"?

To put it properly, we should even talk about a field of study, that of the place of armies in society. The "army-nation link" often expresses concern about the distance between the French and their armies. In reality, the fear of a rift between the military and civilian worlds is a long-standing and inherent feature of the military state, even in militarised societies: those who put on the uniform for a long time and experience war very often perceive a lack of understanding in those who have had little or no military experience. This is unavoidable, since military life and its purpose in combat lead to lifestyles that are structurally at odds with civilian life, because of what is involved in the physical, psychological and moral preparation for war. For the researcher, the 'army-nation link' is an object of study for what it says about the fear expressed by some of seeing this inevitable gap widening, the width of which varies over the course of history. In France, for example, this concern was strong in the aftermath of the Algerian war. It also arose after professionalisation, even though history shows that the suspension of military service does not necessarily lead to decisive changes in the relationship between the civilian and military worlds.

The 'army-nation bond' is therefore one aspect of the study of the relationship that society has with its armed forces, but this relationship is much broader and more complex than the expression itself suggests. They are in fact made up of a multitude of physical points of contact, born of long-term or occasional contact with the military world, but also (and now above all) of mediatised points of contact, through information on armies and wars, cultural creation, memory and all public discourse evoking military issues. Politico-military relations and institutional balances obviously also play a central role in the place that armies occupy in a society.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS PARADE IN LINKING THE FRENCH ARMED FORCES TO FRENCH SOCIETY?

The parade is a rite that is deeply rooted in French public life, especially since it was born with the institution of 14 July as the bank holidays in 1880, in the early years of the Third Republic, after the defeat of Prussia. It was part of a series of political decisions designed to demonstrate and build national unity around the new regime.

Because of the very circumstances of its creation, this parade takes on a special dimension as a manifestation of the link between political power, the army and the population. It inevitably reflects the political concerns of the moment, both national and international. The invocation of moral forces for this 2023 parade echoes not only the war taking place in Eastern Europe, but also the concerns about "social cohesion" and "national cohesion" that have become central to French politics, in the terms widely used since the 1990s and the urban riots of 2005.

For the French, the parade is also a way of seeing armies that they rarely see, since most of the contact they have with them is through the media's coverage of military news. The parade itself has become a television product. The intrinsically visual dimension of this type of military demonstration very quickly caught the interest of television when it became a mass medium.

Going to the Champs-Elysées or watching the parade on television is a ritual act for a large part of French society, and is therefore highly consensual. For the armed forces, it is an opportunity to be seen and to meet the French people, not only during the Paris parade but also throughout France, through ceremonies and demonstrations, as well as through media features and special broadcasts in which reports are broadcast which, anticipated and programmed, enable the development of selected narrative lines.

A QUARTER OF IFÈCLE AFTER THE SUSPENSION OF COMPULSORY MILITARY SERVICE, WHAT IS THE IMAGE OF THE ARMED FORCES AMONG THE YOUNGER GENERATION?

Young French people have an image of the armed forces that is both similar to and different from that of the rest of the population. In a society, layers of memory pile up and sediment in ways that are difficult to unravel, but what has left its mark on a previous generation never completely disappears. At the time of professionalisation, a multitude of facets coexist that make up the image of the armed forces in society. From the wars of the twentieth century, there remains an image, particularly in fiction, that oscillates between the figure of the soldier as victim (of his leaders, of the political authorities) and that of the soldier as executioner. From the 1970s and 1980s onwards, these legacies have been complemented by the image of the soldier as technician, youth worker, logistician and, in certain circumstances, humanitarian agent.

None of these facets of the armed forces' image has been erased, but for the younger generations born in the 2000s, they are more closely linked to the combat role of the military commitment. The gradual reaffirmation of the specific nature of the military by military communications and the Chiefs of Staff from the second part of France's commitment in Afghanistan (2008-2012) has had an impact.

"THE IMAGE OF ARMIES REMAINS HIGHLY SACRIFICIAL".

Since professionalisation, the proportion of young French people prepared to consider military service has fluctuated between 30% and 42% (42% in 1998, 32% in 2011, 37% in 2016, 40% in 2018, etc.).[1]), but the motivations expressed by these potential volunteers have changed. Today, they are more motivated by a desire to serve their country than by the search for professional qualifications, which was a driving force behind recruitment at the end of the 1990s.

However, this image remains highly sacrificial, fuelled by the media coverage of the national tributes paid to those who died in overseas operations. The idea that military personnel are first and foremost people who are willing to sacrifice themselves is very strong and apparently more powerful than the knowledge of the specific nature of the military: the latter is based not on the willing sacrifice of one's own life, but on the acceptance of collectively doing harm to an enemy on the orders of the political authority. It is therefore difficult to understand the realities of military life.

Finally, there is the possibility of a resurgence of militant anti-militarism linked to the way in which it is regularly envisaged that the armed forces will be called upon to respond to domestic crises of a non-military nature, for example for youth work or internal security tasks, in a context of strong political fracturing.

YOU ARE A SPECIALIST IN REPRESENTATIONS OF THE MILITARY. WHAT IS THE CURRENT TONE IN FRENCH SOCIETY AND IN POPULAR CULTURE (CINEMA, TV SERIES, ETC.)?

Mainstream cultural production that takes military life as its subject is a little more abundant today, with a timid but gradual increase in the variety of angles. French audiovisual fiction is just emerging from a period of several decades characterised by storylines based on the victim/offender duality I mentioned earlier.

The challenge is to achieve a critical mass of productions that tell a sufficiently wide range of stories to enable the French people to understand what those who act on their behalf are experiencing. This will be achieved through fiction that rings true, whether realistic or not, whether positive or negative in tone. But these vectors of representation have a cost, because they depend on an industry; material limitations weigh as heavily on this production as the collective representations, which are deeply rooted in our media landscape, and which sometimes struggle to renew themselves.

[1] Ronald Hatto, Anne Muxel and Odette Tomescu, Enquête sur les jeunes et les armées : images, intérêt et attentes, IRSEM, 2011, p 71 ; Anne Muxel, Ronald Hatto, Odette Tomescu-Hatto, Baromètre de la Jeunesse Vague 3, CEVIPOF/Ministère de la Défense, Juin 2016 ; " Les jeunes et la défense ", vague 3, CSA pour la DICOD, février 2018.

ICP / F. Albert