Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Rain 34° Rain
News >  Nation/World

French effort has its own panache

Michael Casey Associated Press

ABOARD JEANNE D’ARC – The naval ship’s pantry is stocked with wines, baguettes and pate, and its casual dress code is shorts and sandals. There’s even an artist – a painter to keep an illustrated record of the trip.

With a panache all its own, France’s military is delivering aid to tsunami-battered Indonesia – and showing how a small force can make a difference.

A month after killer waves struck the Indonesian island of Sumatra, the French are part of a relief operation that includes forces from more than a dozen nations, including Japan, Russia and Switzerland.

The 1,000 or so French sailors and soldiers arrived in Aceh province on the island’s northern tip two weeks ago. Their 11 helicopters and two C-160 cargo planes are airlifting rice and tents to isolated villages devastated by the Dec. 26 tsunami, which killed at least 145,000 people in Asia and Africa.

Foreign Legionnaires are clearing debris left by the waves, rebuilding schools in Maleuboh and occasionally extinguishing fires that flare.

French doctors are treating the sick and vaccinating as many as 10,000 Acehnese children against measles. Many of those children had never been immunized against disease.

“The children are smiling again. This is a good sign,” said Maj. Francois Masse, a veteran pilot of French relief work in Bosnia, Kosovo and Chad.

Although media attention has focused on the U.S. contribution, particularly by the nuclear aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln and its battle group, aid officials say the other forces are playing an equally important role.

“(The French) increase our capacity to move loads into some areas where roads have yet to be reconstructed. Trucks cannot reach these areas,” said Daniel Augstburger, head of the U.N.’s relief work on Sumatra’s western coast.

Vice Adm. Rolin Xavier, who heads the French military effort, said, “We are not in the shadow of the Americans but we work alongside them.”

The dispatch of the USS Abraham Lincoln’s strike force has been viewed in some quarters as an effort not only to help survivors, but also to burnish America’s image among Islamic communities worldwide by delivering aid to the largest Muslim country in the world.

The French maintain they do not have strategic interests in the region.

The contrast with U.S. forces does not end there. The U.S. military bans alcohol aboard naval vessels and sailors generally wear casual clothes only in their quarters.

But French sailors aboard the Jeanne D’Arc pick from wine, beer and other alcoholic drinks, and their ready-made meals come with pate. On deck, they sunbathe in the muggy heat in shorts and sandals.

However, what really sets the French apart is the paunchy, bearded civilian riding a sloop to the shore. He is artist Michel Bellion, appointed to paint the French military in action in his trademark bold strokes and bright colors.

“I’m here to show the drama,” said Bellion, pulling out a sketchbook as he accompanied a team of doctors vaccinating children. “For me, it’s hell. That is what I want to show. I’m not looking to make it beautiful. I’m trying to show the emotion.”

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

Local journalism is essential.

Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.

Active Person

Subscribe now to get breaking news alerts in your email inbox

Get breaking news delivered to your inbox as it happens.