When the U.K. went into lockdown at the end of March, many foreign citizens headed home. But two French army officers serving with NATO’s Allied Rapid Reaction Corps have remained in Britain to help fight the coronavirus.
Major Franck of the French army is working at the historic Horse Guards in central London during the COVID-19 outbreak (Image: Corporal Rob Kane, British Army)
Emmanuel and Franck are commandants (equivalent to the British rank of major) in the Armée de terre – the French army.
Emmanuel is temporarily based at Wellington Barracks, London’s central garrison and home to the world-famous Foot Guards, and Franck is working at the historic Horse Guards in Whitehall.
They are part of a group of specialist military planners from the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC) in Gloucester that has been sent to the capital to assist the U.K. Ministry of Defence's newly-established “COVID Support Force”.
Having graduated from the Saint-Cyr Military Academy 12 years ago, Emmanuel has served with signals regiments, including on operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Mali. His job with the ARRC is in planning, liaising with alliance members to deliver large-scale exercises across Europe.
Now he finds himself as a team leader in the planning branch at the London Military Operations Centre,
"We’re mapping out potential scenarios of the impact of COVID-19”, Emmanuel explains. “It’s our job to anticipate how what requests for support will come in from the civilian authorities and how the military can best help.”
My normal job was about planning for war. Now we are in the midst of a battle that no one could have predicted.
Having joined the French army in 1994 and serving as a non-commissioned officer before commissioning in 2001, Franck has served across the Middle East, Afghanistan, and in eastern Europe. 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.
“Like lots of organisations, we have had to quickly adapt to working in different ways. 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.”
The two officers might have thought they would at least have each other for company, but this has not been the case. To minimise the risk of infection, teams that would normally work together are spread across different sites. Despite their workplaces being just a short walk apart, they will remain separated for the duration of this crisis.
The postings allow the two officers to see London in a different light. Instead of the crowds, museums, pubs and restaurants, the streets of the capital are almost empty.
“It is truly extraordinary, surely a once in a lifetime experience,” says Emmanuel. “Like walking around a beautiful shell that is empty inside.”
“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.”
The Lancaster House Treaties of 2010 established closer cooperation between the U.K. and France on defence and security matters. Emmanuel and Franck had been serving in South West England as part of those agreements. Now that cooperation has been extended to their work in London.
“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 U.K. 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 U.K. 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.”