Sunday, May 21, 2006

Independent on Sunday: Crazy Frogmen

The broader picture, by Keith Laidlaw
Photograph by Philippe Poulet: opens in a new window

Combining the dual roles of commando and diver in one Gallic package, these French soldiers represent the ultimate dream for any little boy who has picked up an Action Man and fantasised of one day becoming a black-clad special forces operative for real, creeping with ninja-like stealth behind enemy lines to fearlessly conquer some faceless foe. Less well known than their Navy counterparts, these French Army divers are trained to carry out tasks in rivers and urban water systems such as underwater engineering, bomb disposal, information gathering, demolition and clandestine attacks.

Strangely, their lack of fame and the fact that they regularly have to do their dirty work in sewers only seems to add to their aura of gritty cool. Indeed, the French seem to have the monopoly on special forces work in Hollywood. Actor Jean Reno in particular has become the Gauloises-puffing go-to guy for such roles in films including Ronin, Mission: Impossible, Leon and even Godzilla).

This is probably no coincidence: the words sabotage, assassin and reconnaissance all have their roots in French, after all. And the country's military seems to have a certain reputation for cold ruthlessness - probably thanks in no small part to the secret service frogmen who, in 1985, attacked the unarmed Greenpeace boat Rainbow Warrior in New Zealand. Neither cool nor even very difficult, the incident nevertheless confirmed that the French shouldn't be messed with.