France - General(ret) Emmanuel de Richoufftz, a model for domestic conflict management

Posted in Europe | 18-Aug-08

"Emmanuel de Richoufftz; The General of the suburbs believes in entrepreneurship. He did not want to lose an entire generation…
"Emmanuel de Richoufftz; The General of the suburbs believes in entrepreneurship. He did not want to lose an entire generation condemned in suburban issues"
A sure way to end one’s career in the French military is to have political opinions and to express them loudly. However, this has not stopped a few officers from speaking up in times of troubles. At the risk of disturbing the political establishment and academic circles, which often view them as reactionary old men, brought up in a tradition that is regimented, authoritarian, central planning oriented and not particularly intellectual, they decided to take initiatives with vast political implications. For instance, the controversial Jacques Massu in the 1960s, with his own views on discipline and pronounced political convictions. In the 1990s, public opinion discovered five-star General and later MEP Philippe Morillon, who tried to save Srebrenica and the UN’s honor. Another example in this decade is General Emmanuel de Richoufftz. He is an officer who has never been afraid of being in the line of fire, in war as in times of peace: “I have always been a free man, and this has not prevented me from doing my work properly”, he said in an interview with French Television LCI. Critics argue that he likes the spotlight too much and that his job should remain to fulfill his military duty. De Richoufftz is a thinking soldier, and to the despair of his superiors during his career, he has always been thinking aloud. He cannot help it, but he has an excuse: his graduation class at the Military Academy Saint Cyr was named after another General who had a long record of “straight talk” based on “uneasy opinions”, Charles de Gaulle. Once in office, de Gaulle greeted the not very “easy” General Massu as follows: “So, Massu, still that stupid? Yes, Mon Général, Massu answered, still that Gaullist”!

Emmanuel de Richoufftz was part of some of the most dangerous missions after WWII. In 1978, his unit, the 2nd Foreign Parachute Regiment conducted the operation Leopard in Kolwezi. They freed thousands of hostages from captivity after a putsch planned in Angola by the rebels from Katanga with the support of Cuban and East-German intelligence.

After the victory of Mitterrand’s socialist-communist alliance in 1981, many influential figures of the French military were frankly hostile to what they considered to be the beginning of a dangerous political adventure. Some high-ranking officers even feared that France might be seeking a closer partnership with the Warsaw Pact. This is the moment de Richoufftz chose to become, of all things, Pierre Mauroy’s aide de camp.

Looking back at his background as an infantryman , he is nowadays very outspoken about the weaknesses of the armed forces, especially when it comes to transport and outdated equipment. He acknowledges the blessings of modern technologies in terms of individual equipment i.e. the concept of ‘the soldier of the 21st century’, but criticizes that major support logistics have been neglected: “[All French] governments wanted to have it all: tanks, helicopters, missiles, and planes. It would have been necessary for the various governments to make a decision. France cannot afford everything at the same time!” He also has strong opinions about President Sarkozy’s reforms of the armed forces even if he openly admits their necessity. The 17% cut of military personnel and the closing of bases do not make much sense, he said in the past, especially if France wants to appear to be a superpower. In his eyes, France needs to face reality and admit that its place is not among the superpowers. The goal should be to gain in efficiency by modernizing, he argued long before Sarkozy’s initiative. He loudly and clearly called for reforms twenty years ago and he was one of the very few, if not the only one. This is probably why he shows no understanding for a few generals who recently hid behind pen names to decry Sarkozy’s reforms in the columns of Le Figaro. De Richoufftz published his first notoriously undiplomatic observations in his book “December 1997, The Russians Are Coming” (1987). In “Again Late On This War” (1992) he described the lack of vision of the strategic and political community. In 2000 he reflected on his own career as a soldier in the award-winning book “For Whom Do We Die?”(Vauban Prize).

Losing an entire generation in the suburbs? Not on his watch!

His last post was as Military Vice-Governor of the Region Ile-de-France (Paris). At this position, he realized that action was needed to tackle the issue of insecurity in the suburbs. He, who had rescued French citizens in the most remote corners of this planet, was determined to rescue them in corners where no policeman went anymore: the suburbs of the capital. This insight came in 2003, long before the first riots. At this time, de Richoufftz stood alone, ignored by major political decision makers, who were looking down at this career soldier, known for putting his nose into issues that allegedly were not his. But he had a vision and stuck to his plan, no matter what: he did not want to lose an entire generation condemned in suburban ghettos. Although civilians have traditionally been entrusted with this task, he felt that the ones in charge had no sustainable concept for these dangerous areas, mostly populated by what the French call “visible minorities”.

After conducting a thorough field analysis including fact-findings with schoolteachers, inhabitants, local authorities and small businesses, he established a risk evaluation. He came to the conclusion that an implosion was imminent. The ultimate issue was, in fact, a lack of vision on all sides. A non-integrated young generation, not sufficiently mastering the French language, was left to itself with no education. They were condemned to unemployment. This created an urban security vacuum where the rule of law ended and delinquency flourished. The man who had led a legendary parachute unit was certainly not going to let that happen any longer. His immediate measure was to launch in June 2004 an unusual 24 page long command and control initiative called “105 licenses for 2005”. De Richoufftz stresses that the military as such was neither at the core nor in charge of this project but merely a coordinator of private business, civil NGOs, and already existing community structures. The draft of his action plan can be consulted here:

"The third generation from these African and Maghreb countries do not feel French"
"The third generation from these African and Maghreb countries do not feel French"
Official authorities tried to dissuade him, stressing that some areas he had targeted in his plan were quasi black spots, in the hands of young gangs led by drug dealers. This might have convinced a graduate of the ENA, Ecole Nationale d’Administration, one of these officials serving in most of France’s ministries and who had been working on the topic for decades. But it took a bit more to intimidate someone who, both in Africa and in the Balkans, had been to hell and back. Without major political backing, he inquired with the Ministry of Defense whether his initiative could be conducted with the Réserve Citoyenne, and especially a body created in 2003 called RLJC, Réservistes Locaux à la Jeunesse et à la Citoyenneté, a civil-military reserve unit detached to youth and community service. He addressed every single potential sponsor, mostly private business, to get fundings. Not a friend of the providential welfare state, de Richoufftz wanted to bring as many young people off the street as possible by helping them enter the working world. The idea was to sponsor their mobility, which would enable them to get a job and finally make them leave the hot spots of the suburbs where they were an easy prey for criminals. A win-win situation for both parties involved. The deal: French lessons when required to be able to obtain a privately sponsored driver’s license. A job-contract went hand in hand with a community coaching for the applicant. Major companies like Sodexho, La Poste or GMF agreed to a long-term sponsorship. “One of these kids once told me ‘Mon Général, you are my last chance, so I follow you!’” he recalls, “I used to go to the suburbs in uniform, young people would gather around me and we would start to chat, I would tell them: ‘stand up, take your baseball cap off and introduce yourself’. And it worked very well; there were no problems at all. The police would get anxious and tell me: ‘Mon Général, you realize that you go places where we do not go anymore, right?’ So what? One more reason for me to go! I told them, and everything worked out well... I saw these kids, their families, I visited mayors and local authorities. I set up meetings and I told them: ‘Look, you are stranded here, going nowhere, step onboard my ship, we will sail together in the same direction, you will be my crew and I will be your Captain, and you will see, at the end, we will win! In nine months you will have a job and a driver’s license.’“

Revolutionary: as an immediate result, it contributed to appease racial tensions in these forgotten areas of Paris where civil society as such had been in retreat for twenty years. The project was planned and conducted like a special emergency operation: unbureaucratic, efficient and carefully monitored, with evaluation and lessons learned included. It quickly became a success (only one quarter of the applicants have later quit or been fired). In the autumn of 2005, as the suburbs of Paris were on fire and politicians seemed lost with words, the press turned to de Richoufftz’s concept. They also started raising unpleasant questions: why had no civil authority ever been able to conduct such an operation, let alone come up with the idea of anything similar in the first place? How much tax payer’s money had been invested by various ministries and regional authorities in the suburbs for youth integration in the last years, in which form and with which results? De Richoufftz who originally just intended to fix locally a security problem became, once again, an anomaly for many of his colleagues. His profile was suddenly raised by the mass media. The result was that carbon-copied programs, hastily elaborated on the model of his initiative, but on a larger centralized and subsidized scale, were launched. Most of them eventually failed as early as 2007, while curiously, his community based and privately sponsored local initiative was not renewed. De Richoufftz commented this as follows: “My straight talk might sometimes disturb”...

In 2006, without official political recognition for his achievements, the man the French press calls with much deference the “General of the suburbs”, the soldier who found money without asking the tax payers and solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems that should not have been his, retired from the military and joined the business world where he now enjoys an excellent reputation as one of France’s most efficient troubleshooters, of course. He also lectures throughout France about the key role of entrepreneurship in civil society and the concept of citizenship.

"Step onboard my ship, we will sail in the same direction, I will be your Captain and you will be…
"Step onboard my ship, we will sail in the same direction, I will be your Captain and you will be my crew!"
He blogs at and he has still a lot to say about the danger of losing the young generation, France’s return at the military command of NATO, the relationship between the Commander in Chief and his armed forces, the defense reform and the White Book of the French Defense Ministry. Do not expect empty diplomatic phrasings, he cannot help it.

If de Gaulle had known de Richoufftz, it is highly probable that he would have been his first supporter. De Gaulle as a young officer, too, openly criticized the lack of vision of his country’s decision makers. He wrote about the lack of equipment, especially modern transport means, and this long before WWII. He was also a man of initiatives who spoke up and disturbed the political establishment by daring to get things done where others blatantly failed. So, it is indeed likely that, after all, he would have greeted de Richoufftz with the same irony he did greet Massu.

General de Richoufftz: Some general remarks

On the role of the armed forces:

The armed forces are not the clean up mechanism of society. Before one starts focussing on issues like the restoration of conscription, one should rather have a look at what others have been doing until now, why it is not or badly working.

On responsibility:

Everyone should do his job, you are speaking about family and education, but what are the families doing while their children are setting cars on fire? The parents have to be responsible and can be expected to be held accountable for their children. As to the central education system, I am sometimes wondering, as I have been working with several teachers and headmasters in what I have been conducting in the suburbs. These are remarkable people. What I am asking myself is this: For the last 30 years, this system has been turning out illiterates. It does not seem to bother anyone! So before you pass on the task to the armed forces, it is truly necessary to reflect in depth about our society.

On conscription:

I hear here and there that we should re-establish a kind of compulsory civil or military conscription. It is a mistake. If you use coercion, it is not going to work with the French. That is their nature; it is like that.

(…) In our country we have a habit of always wanting to make things compulsory. This is annoying.

On identity:

Concretely, what does it mean to be French? This is what I taught them: firstly, it is mastering the French language, secondly it is being part of the working world, because when you are working in a company, you have something else in mind than go out, set cars on fire in the suburbs and spray walls. Businesses create wealth and are the key to social success! And thirdly it is having a historical reference that makes you feel French.

On the colonial past:

When your name is Rachida or Mohamed, you are not going to refer to the Gauls as your ancestors; you will want something else as a reference. But no one bothered to talk to them about that. Because in France, and you know that very well, the duty to remember is something selective, so we have parts of our history that we do not want to talk about.

On the role of the reserve:

The important thing was to show to these young people that one could be working for Renault or Sodexho and still be willing to wear a uniform 15 days a year. It was like saying to Mohamed or Rachida: “you see, when you will be working in a company, come and give a bit of free time to the fatherland”. Well, 22 out of 130 have just joined the reserve forces in Paris.