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Through the eyes of Isabelle: an encounter with the military world

Marie Malavoy, member of the Théâtre des Petites Lanternes Ambassador Committee

There are several soldiers among my French relatives. My maternal grandfather was a Brigadier General. He served in the two world wars: 1914-1918 and 1939-1945. All his life he continued to wear his leather gaiters and cavalry pants. I found this very nice when I was a child. In the small town in the south-west of France where they lived, my grandmother was respectfully called "Madame la générale" and I, when I was there on vacation, I was "the general's granddaughter.” I felt a definite sense of pride.

This was the positive side.

I also remember my uncle Philippe, my grandfather’s son. He was a career soldier too, and spent a large part of his life with psychological disorders that we would certainly qualify today as post-traumatic. He fought in the Algerian war and had not recovered from what he experienced there. We never talked about it. His condition was shrouded in mystery. We guessed at his troubles, we acted as if nothing had happened like the rest of the family.

This was the negative side.

When I heard about the Monarques Project, I felt as much attracted as concerned. What was I diving into? So far, I had been quite successful in dodging my own memories and getting around my lack of inclination for all things ‘army’. I was asked to get in touch with someone whose path had been full of obstacles that had left scars. How was I to approach this with openness and curiosity? To tell the truth, I accepted without really knowing the answer, driven by an impulse much bigger than me and from which I felt I could not escape.

This is how I ended up meeting with Isabelle.

Things were hesitant at first, marked by our differences as we searched for a point of contact that would anchor our unusual relationship. At first there was no sign of such a link. She had to find her path in life the hard way; with no encouragement to pursue her studies, an ambient misogyny in the family, no right for children to speak, and the constant feeling that she was swimming against the tide of her environment without support or recognition. I realized how privileged I had been to grow up surrounded by parents who believed in me. They had high expectations, of course, but all the same the soil was solid and fertile, ready for sowing and, later, for harvest. My father in particular, having been brought up by his mother, a war widow (my paternal grandfather died in the trenches in 1915 a few weeks before he was born) had unfailing confidence in his daughters.

We were so different then, Isabelle and I, but eventually the connection came over the course of conversations that revealed our stories, our temperaments and our dreams little by little.

For example, the day when she said to me: “I still need to save”, I felt that I also had this impulse, from a certain point of view, when I entered politics. In her case it was saving lives, and overcoming the suffering and the horror of combat. For my part, I had the feeling that I had to get involved in the workings of our society to improve the image of a misunderstood and unloved profession. In my own way, I wanted to “save” my country. It was like a click.

Other discoveries during our conversations brought us closer.

Rwanda 1994. In this photo, Isabelle Boivin and her co-worker treat a Rwandan patient in one of the structures of the field hospital they had set up.

Even coming from such dissimilar backgrounds, points of convergence emerged in our experiences. Both of us had to assert ourselves in a world built by men. When I was a member of the National Assembly, I often jokingly said that when I left the house I was “going to the regiment" because I found the world of Parliament filled with rules and constraints. This is even more the case in the army, of course, where the chain of command does not leave much room for individuality.

But Isabelle and I found ourselves faced with the same paradox; we both wanted to prove that we could succeed like men while also expressing our femininity. To do that, to survive in a masculine world, we needed a slightly rebellious temperament. We needed to accept the general culture while maintaining a space for personal freedom in our judgments and our actions. We wanted to fit the mold, but not be stuck to it, and held the somewhat naive ambition of maybe stretching it around the edges. This made us both think about what it is to be a woman, beyond just the professions we chose.

During one of our conversations, Isabelle confided to me: “Next time I would like us to talk about ourselves as mothers”. This surprised me a little because it seemed so far from the battlefields, but at the same time I felt like this could be a subject that would really bring the two of us together, since maternity is such a key part of both of our identities. In Isabelle's case, it came after enlisting in the army because it seemed incompatible to her with military life. For me, it came before politics, so that my children would be young adults when I made the "jump".

As important as it is, however, the role of mother could not have defined us on its own. Isabelle made me laugh a lot by telling me, “I didn’t like knitting”. It's true that I could never imagine her knitting socks by the fireside. My mother would have liked to see me develop some of the more typically feminine skills of her time (knitting, embroidery, singing, dancing, etc.) in order to complete my intellectual education. It was clear, however, that neither my talent nor my tastes were up to the task. No, for Isabelle and me, it was necessary to go beyond the framework of domestic life. Even today, as she is gradually getting back on her feet after the traumatic experiences that marked her, her progress depends on commitments that will have positive effects on other people. This is also how I am approaching this period of my life called retirement. It must be an opportunity to share my experiences, pass on knowledge and reflect on political life. In brief, she needs to have a direction. Maybe it is a bit presumptuous for the two of us to assume we can be useful, it is also a sign that we are rooted in the present by our concerns about the future of the world.

In just a few weeks, I went from questioning my role in the Monarques Project to the feeling of having found a path to a better understanding of the military world. Through Isabelle's eyes, I came to understand that this universe can be fascinating and attractive, despite the blows of fate, the pitfalls, and the consequences. One joins up to give the best of themselves, although sometimes they end up leaving a part of themselves behind. Even bearing the marks of that trauma, it was worth the time, because of the purpose they had starting out.

So, grandfather, now I understand a little better the world in which you lived, beyond the leather gaiters that impressed me as a little girl. This has been a great opportunity to close the loop.

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