Obituary: General Francois Binoche

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The French army is supposed to be the silent service, "la grande muette" which obeys orders and carries out its allotted tasks. Yet many of its most famous officers have been those who were not afraid to speak out and to protest. General Francois Binoche was one of the most distinguished of those who were courageous in speech as well as in action.

In 1940, Binoche was a lieutenant serving in Morocco with the Foreign Legion. He openly expressed discontent with the policy of surrender and the Resident General's acceptance (after some hesitation) of Petain's rule. He was contacted by Andre Dewavrin, whom he had known at Saint Cyr and who (under the name of Passy) had been put in charge of General de Gaulle's intelligence service in London from July.

This contact and some rebellious talk caused Binoche to be arrested and imprisoned in Meknes. There he made the acquaintance of Pierre Mendes- France, one of the 24 deputies who had gone to Morocco in the hope of establishing an independent government there. Together they were transferred to prison in Clermont Ferrand and charged by the Vichy government. Binoche was accused of having conspired "with the enemy power" (namely, England) but he was acquitted because of the lack of evidence against him.

He joined the Resistance and served with several networks set up by army officers. By the spring of 1944, with the rank of commandant, he was in charge of the newly formed Forces Francaises de l'Interieur (FFI) in the Ardeche department. When the news came of the Allied landings in Normandy, he entered into combat against the Germans. In one of these battles he lost an arm.

He was made a Compagnon de la Liberation and in November 1945 he was summoned to assist Edmond Michelet, who was Minister for the Armed Services, in the new government. De Gaulle had appointed Michelet because he had to work closely with the Communist Charles Tillon, who was Minister for Armaments. The General considered that Michelet had the necessary experience of working with communities in the Resistance. The same was true of Binoche.

After some months in this post he was sent to the war in Indo-China where he commanded the Fifth Infantry Brigade of the Foreign Legion. There, he felt some sympathy with the Viet-Minh. They reminded him of the French Resistance fighters. But his anger was raised by the bungling of several operations, notably the evocations of the northern outpost of Cao Bang and the fall of Langson. He claimed that every mistake had been made, so that the French and their allies suffered heavy losses and the French position was made precarious. He publicly demanded the recall of General Carpentier.

All the time he was keeping Mendes-France, who had remained a friend, informed of what was happening and giving him information which he used in speeches calling for an end to the war. The result was that in 1954, when Mendes-France formed his government, which was pledged to make peace in Indo-China, Binoche was a member of his military cabinet. He advised the prime minister on many matters concerning defence, notably on the need to pursue research so that France could be equipped with nuclear power. In this, Binoche worked closely with Colonel Ailleret (later to be Commander-in-Chief) and they achieved their ends at a meeting on Boxing Day 1954.

Binoche also served in the Algerian War. He was one of those who had had forewarning of the so-called putsch of the generals in April 1961. He was therefore able to escape arrest and to organise resistance to the generals. He was notably unsuccessful with the cavalry unit which was celebrating St George's Day, and he was afterwards highly critical of the high-ranking officers in the Algiers region. "We were saved," he later said, "by the junior and non-commissioned officers."

He subsequently helped put down the European terrorists who refused to accept "Monsieur de Gaulle's cease-fire", and he served on the special military courts which were set up to pass judgement on officers who had been arrested.

In 1964, he became military governor of Berlin with the rank of general. In 1967, he was put on the reserve at his request. But he re-emerged, typically, in a very controversial manner. Opposed to Giscard d'Estaing, he shared with many (such as Raymond Aron) his belief that the new President was dangerously unaware of the realities of international relations. In July 1975 he denounced the growing Franco-German alliance, claiming that Germany remained a danger to France.

He entered politics, both in the municipal elections in Nice (where he was living) and in the legislative elections of 1978. He stood, with others, as a member of the Union of Progressive Gaullists. But he was unsuccessful and in 1981 supported Mitterrand against Giscard. His actions in 1975 had caused him to be removed from the reserve. He was restored in 1983.

Douglas Johnson

Francois Binoche, soldier: born Paris 23 March 1911; died Paris 18 May 1997.