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.
Their Facebook group is called “Un paquet de Gauloises en colère”. And for this group of angry French soldiers’ wives, posing semi-naked has become the only way to protest against a computer glitch that has left their husbands unpaid.The Facebook campaign, which features wives, girlfriends, daughters and supporters of serving soldiers, baring their backs, has more than 17,000 members.

Written on the naked backs are messages of support for their loved-ones as well as derision for the system they claim has failed them. Their menfolk aren’t allowed to speak out for themselves, being bound by the “devoir de reserve (duty of silence)” rule which 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 payments of salaries and overseas bonuses across all arms 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 complain, 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” — the Facebook campaign, launched a year ago, finally started gathering momentum in October 2012.

“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 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,” declared MOD spokesman General Martin Klotz to France24 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.”