French soldiers’ wives strip in protest at late payments
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Hundreds of French women have bared their backs in a Facebook campaign for the payment of their soldier-husbands’ salaries. The French Ministry of Defence's faulty payments system has left them in the lurch.
“Un paquet de Gauloises” refers to an emblematic French brand of cigarettes historically popular with soldiers.
Colloquially, “un paquet” is also “a large number”, while “Gauloises” can be interpreted as describing patriotic French women. “En colère” simply means “angry”.
And to have “plein le dos” – literally to “have a back-full” – is a common French way of expressing extreme exasperation, hence the baring of the backs.
For one group of angry French soldiers’ wives, posing semi-naked has become a way of protesting against a computer glitch that has left their husbands unpaid. Their Facebook campaign, “Un paquet de Gauloises en colère” (a group of angry Frenchwomen) -- which features the wives, girlfriends, daughters and other supporters of serving soldiers baring their torsos -- has more than 17,000 members.
Written on their naked backs are messages of support for their loved ones, as well as derision for a system they say has failed them. The men aren’t allowed to speak out for themselves, being bound by the “devoir de reserve (duty of silence)" rule that forbids them from “using their job functions as an instrument of propaganda”.
Disastrously small payments
At the heart of their complaints is a computer payments system called Louvois, which regulates the payment of salaries and overseas bonuses across all departments of the French military.
At the end of 2011, hundreds of soldiers received no money over a period of two months. Since then, the bug in the Louvois system has come to affect thousands of soldiers, many of whom are serving overseas in war zones such as Afghanistan. Payments, soldiers and their wives say, are often random and sometimes disastrously small because of the computer glitch.
In the run-up to Christmas 2012, the government said it is doing its best to put its house in order and has promised that the system will be working properly by New Year. But the “Paquet de Gauloises” are still “en colère” (or "angry") -- the Facebook campaign, launched a year ago, finally started gathering momentum this October.
“A year ago, relatively few soldiers were affected by the Louvois mess,” said Virginie, a soldier’s wife who is one of the Facebook group’s founders. “But since October, the number of families affected has snowballed and membership of the group has exploded.”
“Some of these women are unable to pay their bills or their rent,” she added. “I even gave one of them some old baby clothes because she couldn’t afford to buy them herself.”
Virginie said the idea for the group on the popular social networking site actually came from a man, a former soldier himself, who was inspired by a similar campaign by the wives of US soldiers posing naked in support of their injured partners. “We told ourselves that there was no reason why we couldn’t do this,” Virginie told FRANCE 24.
‘The right to show our anger’
The French military authorities, however, have been less than amused. “We have had pressure from on high, demanding that we take the group down from Facebook because it was damaging the military’s image,” Virginie said. “But we won’t be intimidated. Wives are not bound by the ‘devoir de reserve’ rule, and we have the right to show our anger publicly.”
The French Ministry of Defence (MOD) denied it had put any of the women under pressure to remove the group and insisted that it respected soldiers wives’ right to protest.
“Yes, it’s the first time we’ve seen anything like this in France, but we’re not shocked by the Facebook protest,” MOD spokesman General Martin Klotz told FRANCE 24 on Wednesday. He said he was confident that all pay issues would be fully resolved by Christmas. “We’re doing everything we can to get this situation in order. The French military doesn’t want demoralised soldiers, and it doesn’t want their families to go hungry.”