French Doctors and the Bomb

By Mary-Wynne Ashford | 1988-10-01 12:00:00

THIS WINTER I SPENT EIGHT WEEKS IN FRANCE as an emissary for the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW). My goal was to better understand, and help overcome, the resistance to the disarmament movement in France. The scale of the problem can be seen from the numbers belonging to L'Association des médecins pour la prévention de la guerre nucléaire (AMFPGN), the French affiliate of IPPNW: only 400 members out of 170,000 physicians.

The Obstacles

I VISITED ACADEMICS, social activists, religious groups, prominent physicians, and journalists. I met with members of the two major peace movements, "Mouvement de la Paix" and "Comité pour le Desarmement Nucleaire en Europe" (CODENE), a group of noncommunist peace organizations. Although CODENE still publishes a bulletin, a leader expressed pessimism about its future, saying that it is now a "bluff' - that participation is nominal, not active.

A medical sociologist with whom I discussed my project pointed out that French physicians are not especially conservative, but rather that French society itself is resisting social movements that are influential in other countries; the feminist movement, the anti-smoking movement, and the ecology movement are all weak.

The French press blocks discussion of the threat of nuclear war. For example, when IPPNW won the Nobel Prize, one headline said, "KGB Wins Nobel Prize." The only press coverage of the peace movement is in the communist newspaper, L'Humanité', although Le Monde has been questioning French defence policies editorially. In Bordeaux, where I gave a church conference, the paper would not even print the "bulletin board" announcement of it, apparently because of fear of repercussions after the elections.

In the YWCA, which has a world policy for action, there is little implementation in France. Universities do not debate nuclear defence. Women's groups (except for Women's International League for Peace and Freedom) do not regard defence as an appropriate topic for discussion.

The churches are not examining nuclear disarmament as a Christian issue because it is linked to the Communist Party. The Catholic bishops accepted the French force de frappe as a deterrent, saying that the immorality of the use did not make the threat immoral. They were opposed by a group of other church people who recommended a study of the possibility of civilian-based national defence. Although only two percent of the French population are protestant, their churches have been more engaged on the issues than the Catholics. Protestant church leaders supported the Evangelical Church of Polynesia's appeals to France to stop nuclear testing in the Pacific.

During the recent election campaign, political parties did not debate the French nuclear force, because there is a public consensus in favor of it. Only the Communist Party opposes it. Anyone discussing nuclear weapons is labelled as a Communist. One doctor recounted to me having told a colleague about the effects of Chernobyl. He had replied, "This simply cannot be true, because if it were, we would know about it. Therefore it is clear that in telling me this, you have a hidden political motive."


ALTHOUGH I HAD PREPARED for a cold greeting, I was in fact received warmly. The French public seems more open to examining defence policy than the media or the government would lead one to think. One Paris taxi driver reduced the tab to show his support for the work I was to do in France!

In general, the public made four typical responses:

  1. "We are more afraid of the Russians than we are of nuclear war." (The Russian threat is magnified by the noncommunist parties to discredit the Communist Party.)
  2. "There is no risk of nuclear war because no one would be so stupid as to start one. Certainly France would never use her nuclear weapons. They are there for deterrence only." (Audiences seemed deeply shocked by the research on the risk of war unleashed by accident or inadvertent escalation. This was the single most potent argument to move people.)
  3. "It' s probably wrong to test weapons in the Pacific. but it's so far away, we don't think about it." (The French are convinced that Australia wants France out of the Pacific Islands because Australia has her own imperialistic motives.)
  4. "Well, you can't do anything anyway." (I showed the video, "Si Cette Planete Vous Tient a' Coeur," which usually prompts anglophone audiences to a call to action, the formation of committees to work further. The outcome in the French audiences? A stimulating debate that would often continue until past midnight, but nothing more.)


MEMBERS of AMFPGN were extremely generous to me. Many of them, who spend long hours working for the organization, told me that they are Communists. It seemed to me that almost the only people really working for peace were Communists. They are scrupulously non-partisan in their involvements in AMFPGN, and their bulletin presents unbiased scientific material. I never saw any proselytizing or political debating.

"Savoir" is a group of French physicians that work for the prevention of all war. They have a conservative image. An attempt to unite the two groups was unsuccessful, and they now try to cooperate without joining.

The Media

REPORTERS ASKED THE SAME QUESTIONS as the French public: How could we work with Soviet doctors and not take a stand against human rights abuses in the Soviet Union? Was I aware that some of our Soviet colleagues were implicated in such abuses? Did I not feel that Mr. Gorbachev's goal was world domination and that he was simply more cunning than previous leaders? Why had we not taken a stand against nuclear power stations? Wasn't that an even more serious medical issue than nuclear war, which would never happen anyway? How could we leave Europe vulnerable to the massive Soviet conventional forces? What about the unemployment that would result from demilitarizing the economy? If the Americans were quitting Europe, didn't that present a need for French nuclear forces? Despite the anti-Soviet feeling evident in these questions, the journalists reported the interviews sympathetically.


THE MILITARY HUMILIATION OF FRANCE did not end in 1945, but was followed by defeat in Vietnam and Algeria. Possession of nuclear weapons offered to restore the country as a world power. French national pride is tied to the force de frappe, as one physician illustrated by mimicking a rooster flapping his wings and crowing "cocorico!".

The decision to be independent of outside sources of energy put France on the path to nuclear power. Now, more than seventy percent of its energy is nuclear. There has been a sustained program of public reassurance that nuclear power is safe and cheap. Accidents are minimized and educational programs in schools promote confidence in the nuclear industry. A high school student told me he had been taught that the only danger in a nuclear power plant would be one produced by a nuclear bomb. Anything else could be easily handled. The French were not told of the Chernobyl accident until several days after the rest of Europe. Even then, there was little concern about the fallout, and indeed France was spared of much of the contamination.

International organizations are accustomed to having French delegations represented by at least two rival groups. The YWCA has two affiliates, the Catholics and the Protestants. France is the only country so represented. Many schools have two PTA groups, left and right.


THE WEAKNESS of AMFPGN arises from the political image, rather than from any problems of the organization, which is in fact effective and creative. There is much to be gained by increasing its cooperation with Savoir. In fact, if the two groups could speak from the same platform, it would validate the point that the prevention of war is not a partisan issue. Considering how suspicious French physicians are about joining organizations, trying to get members may not be the best use of resources. Perhaps education of physicians is a better goal to set.

The most successful meetings I had in France were small groups of people who knew and liked each other- and frequently these met in homes. Often the questions were prefaced with "Well, I couldn't ask you this at the public meeting, but...". In a close setting, people tend to ask the troubling questions. Many people wanted to borrow the videotapes to show at home to friends. The French think that a meeting without food and wine is barbaric! Doctors who avoid lectures will come to a small informal soiree.

Physicians in all four of the countries that I visited - France, Belgium, Switzerland, and Luxembourg - were interested in the literature from the others. Francophone physicians can increase the networking between colleagues of different countries. It is hard to resist reading an article sent by a colleague in another country. Posting the article on a university or hospital bulletin board not only spreads the information, but shows that this subject is regarded as important in another country. Francophone physicians from outside France, do let AMFPGN know if you are going to France and are willing to speak! The group in Aix-en-Provence, for example, are interested in having a foreign physician speak to them at the university. If you attend a medical meeting in France, talk about the threat of nuclear war! Your conversation gives credibility to the organization. Bon Courage!

Dr. Ashford is President of Canadian Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (CPPNW), an affiliate of IPPNW..

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988

Peace Magazine Oct-Nov 1988, page 18. Some rights reserved.

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