As the UK went into lockdown at the end of March, the few flights still operating through London airports were mostly bringing Brits home or taking foreign nationals back to their country. Across the world, coronavirus has seen those working abroad returning home as governments seek to protect their citizens from being stranded. However, for two French Army officers, things have been very different.
Emmanuel and Franck are both Commandants (equivalent to British Majors) in the Armée de terre – the French army. While most of their French colleagues, as well as their own families, are back in France, these two officers have been thrust into the unlikely position of working with the British military as it supports with the civil authorities in the fight against coronavirus.
The Lancaster House Treaties of 2010 established closer cooperation between the UK and France on defence and security matters. Emmanuel and Franck had been serving in England as part of those agreements. However, the arrival of the global pandemic saw them quickly transferred from their Gloucester base to work within London’s Joint Military Command.
Speaking from their bases in London, Emmanuel and Franck are upbeat about their new roles. Emmanuel is based at Wellington Barracks, London’s central garrison and home to the world-famous Foot Guards. Having graduated from the Saint-Cyr Military Academy 12 years ago, he has served with signals regiments, including on operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Mali.
Now working out of the London Military Operations Centre at the barracks, Emmanuel is a team leader within the planning branch. “We’re mapping out potential scenarios of the impact of COVID-19”, Emmanuel says, “it’s our job to anticipate how what requests for support will come in from the civilian authorities and how the military can best fulfil them.” Back in his previous job at the NATO ARRC, Emmanuel was also working in a planning role, coordinating with alliance members to deliver large scale exercises across Europe. “My normal job was about planning for war”, Emmanuel says, “now we are in the midst of a battle that no one could have predicted.”
The two officers might have thought that despite being cut off from most of the world, they would at least have each other for company, but this has proven not to be the case. To minimise the risk of those military personnel working to combat the virus being infected, teams that would normally work together are spread across various different sites. With Emmanuel at Wellington Barracks, Franck is working out of Horse Guards, a grand office block come stables that sits between Whitehall and the iconic Horse Guards Parade, most well-known for hosting the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony. Despite the two workplaces being just a short walk through St James Park away from one another, Emmanuel and Franck will remain separated for the duration of this crisis.
Having joined the French army in 1994 and serving as a non-commissioned officer before commissioning in 2001, Franck has seen a lot in his career. Despite numerous deployments across the Middle East, Afghanistan and in eastern Europe, Franck is now helping the UK fight a new type of enemy. As an information management specialist, he is responsible for ensuring vast amounts of data can be safely stored and accessed by the rest of the team working on the COVID-19 response. “Getting used to the British way of working has been a challenge”, Franck admits, “but coming straight from a role in a NATO headquarters gave me a head start.”
The nature of Franck’s role is quite different to the soldiers administering coronavirus tests in car parks, but it is just as important in the effort to beat the pandemic. “Like lots of organisations, we have had to quickly adapt to working in different ways”, Franck says, “with many people working remotely it is so important that information can be shared quickly and securely with those on the front line of this battle, in hospitals and testing sites.”
A posting to central London for a foreign officer is often seen as a plum job, with the capital’s wealth of cultural sights and no shortage of good pubs and restaurants, but it has been quite a different experience for these two. “It is truly extraordinary, surely a once in a lifetime experience”, says Emmanuel, “like walking around a beautiful shell that is empty inside.”
Working close to Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, they would normally be surrounded by jostling tourists, but lockdown has left the streets almost deserted. “I visited London for the first time with my family last year”, Franck recalls, “the crowds meant we could barely see the changing of the guard, it is so strange to now walk past the palace gates in silence.”
Franck and Emmanuel both point to the Lancaster House Treaties as having established the basis for effective UK and French cooperation in response to COVID-19. “I have seen first-hand how those agreements helped us work together on operations in places such as Mali and Estonia”, Emmanuel says, “those experiences have made it easier to help each other at times likes this.”
For Franck, supporting the UK as a French army officer makes perfect sense. “We have shown in recent years that we can work well together at every level”, he says, “it was obvious to me that when the pandemic arrived, I should remain in the UK and support the effort to combat the virus.” The fact that the support is mutual is important for Franck, “I know there are British officers who are posted to Paris in a similar situation to me”, he says, “we all have the same objective, we are all doing out bit to deliver our nations’ out of this crisis.”
The scale of the challenge on which they are working is not lost on Emmanuel or Franck. “I am missing my family, and I look forward to when I can be with them again”, says Franck, “but I know how important it is that we focus on overcoming this virus and I am proud to be playing my part.”
Despite being from another country and another army, Emmanuel feels duty bound to serve in London during this crisis. Referencing a quote often attributed to Winston Churchill (its provenance is disputed) he says, “‘we make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give’ – for me that sums why I am still here, the UK has given me a lot and I am glad to be able to give something back.”