Arriving at his place, you may feel like you are in the center of Paris, surrounded by buildings resembling a smaller version of the L’Elysée. A very symmetrical setting, tall, beige buildings, all sitting around a square park with a fountain in the middle. Except that you are in Grenoble, a French city lying in the valley of Chartreuse, Vercors and Belledonne mountains.
Jacques Roussel’s service house – the so-called “Hotel des Troupes de Montagne” – looks as grand on the inside as its facade. Once you pass the gate safeguarded by military guards and arrive inside, you find yourself bombarded with spacious rooms covered with paintings and golden elements. Strikingly, every centimeter of the walls and exceptionally high ceilings is either decorated with a painting or a wide mirror – a Napoleanian style. Each of the numerous rooms has a differently shaped crystal chandelier. Walking on the chanting wooden floor of this mansion, you feel like you are in something of a mix of a presidential suite and castle from a fairytale. But this environment is far from who you would expect Jacques Roussel to be. A man enjoying simple things – although his life may not be simple – with an incredible passion for nature and mountains.
His daughter and wife are in the kitchen preparing pizza and dessert, momentarily popping into the living room in order to set the table. His son carefully washes some dishes and glasses. Everything seems to be working like in a swiss watch, every person being assigned to a specific task. Only his mother, an elderly lady, sits in the living room reading a book. Jacques just came back from work after a long day, and still wears his military uniform. He usually proceeds to greet all of the family members and casually starts chatting.
Jacques, who currently is the deputy to the general commanding the defense base of the Alps, has a long experience in the French army. He was at the lead of numerous national, NATO and international missions, ranging from national security missions to UN peacekeeping missions that were “not always peaceful and could be very violent” – as he stresses. To be part of the decision-making procedures in such complex and dangerous operations, he first had to be an officer on the field himself and believes this step as being crucial in order to give commands.
“We all want to move forward in our careers, but that’s not a goal in itself” he starts when being asked about becoming an army general in the near future. Jacques believes that having a higher army rank involves more responsibility, but it is something he is already used to after his years of experience. ”Being a soldier is very difficult physically, so it is better to be 25 than 50 when you have to carry a heavy bag and be in rough conditions”, he laughs. He also comments on it having to stay a profession of the “young” as it creates better group cohesion.
The times when he was a young officer himself, “at the bottom of the pyramid” as he calls it, have taught him a lot. There were two events, in specific, namely two commando training he had as part of his training in St. Cyr military academy, the most prestigious military school in France, founded by Napoleon Bonaparte. The first commando training took place in the Pyrenees mountains, where weather conditions are harsh and unpredictable. When asked about what he found the hardest, he surprisingly said that it was not the so called “Audacity parcours” which involve a lot of rope climbing, crawling, escalating steep mountain peaks and manipulating all kinds of explosives”. For him, it was sleep deprivation, which he admitted was his weak point throughout his career. “We would sleep 2 hours per night for a month and carry a weapon at all times, even during showers and in bed”, Jacques says.
Mountains, however, “have always been and remained his comfort zone”, says his mother Fabienne who has somewhat followed the conversation from its start. By now, everyone has sat in a circle, eating freshly baked pizzas and the bright living room is filled with the scent of the freshness of grilled vegetables, warm mozzarella and goat cheese. As he just moved into that house that still lacks some furniture, Jacques pulled a trunk that served as an improvised table – simply and creatively, he just fixed this problem. No table, but a trunk – the kind of item you surely find at Jacques’ place. The pizzas were eaten after the “aperitif”; a french finger-food custom, and the night continued in a very warm and family setting.
“He is the youngest of my four children, and always was a leader […] I knew he would follow the same path as his father, and engage himself in the army”, says Fabienne. She could observe that during the numerous mountain excursions with her children and husband in the 70s and 80s, during which Jacques had a lot of fun. This somewhat got confirmed as Jacques always found a way to connect his mountain passion to his work; when becoming the sub-head of the 27th mountain infantry brigade from 2015 to 2018, and being in charge of operational preparation, budget and coordination.
Jacques particularly emphasizes on how this mountain training, at the times he was an officer, helped his job at the mountain infantry brigade and its conditions as being a valuable asset to be stronger. He points to mountainous environments as being very technical; where you not only have to learn how to be “comfortably cold” but also learn things you wouldn’t otherwise, such as using special equipment. As you are constantly exposed to various constraints, this also fosters new ways of decision making in hostile environments, he later took into account when giving commands to soldiers.
“Did you know that crocodiles taste like fish, but have a pleasing chicken texture ?” jokingly says Jacques when introducing the story about his second commando training during his years at St. Cyr school. While he also got the opportunity to taste turtle, this was far from being an exotic vacation. Jacques spent a month in a jungle in French Guyana, where he learned how to survive in very difficult conditions. Sleep was hard to come by here. “Our clothes, hammocks and tents were constantly soaked with humidity; we even had to move our camp once as the water levels rose fast”. This time, the environment and survival-oriented training made it particularly challenging. “You must realize that walking through the jungle means hobbling through mud and dense vegetation”.
This preparation was necessary for several missions for which he was on the field, namely operation “Harpie” in Guyana fighting illegal gold panning he participated in 2001, operation “Licorne” moderating the tensions political-military tensions in the Ivory-Coast he took part in 2003, 2005 and 2007 and operation “Baliste” operation, which aimed at securing citizens of the European Union in the context of Lebanon’s war in 2006. Jacques does not hide that these operations were very violent and dangerous – but he was ready. “You are well prepared before to see these kinds of situations as technical actions, and trained not to include any emotion that would prevent you from complying to the orders”.
Jacques makes a disclaimer on what those missions are, as a lot of them are disregarded, such as humanitarian missions soldiers conduct on the side. In his case, it was teaching children at local schools how to read and write, but he also mentioned his medical colleagues taking time to provide medical help to the locals. “We are not robots, we are human after all”.
With all of his experience and the role in the army he has today, he knows how important it is to have experience on the ground to know what you’re putting your people through. “If you are comfortably sitting in the headquarters, and have no understanding of what is truly happening, you can’t make good decisions.” says Jacques. He explains that this is because once you are in the headquarters, the only information you get comes from computers and intelligence services, however, you also need to be aware of what is feasible and other human aspects. He was thus very aware himself once he was a decision maker at “Barkane’s” operation in 2015 that his decisions have important consequences on his comrades, subordinates and allies.
Today, Jacques is still part of decision-making processes, but on a higher level. He does not make tactical decisions for missions anymore, but their preparation. He discusses budgets, training, equipment and finding solutions for accommodation and other infrastructures for ongoing and future “enhanced forward presence” (eFP) operations , notably “Eagle” and “Lynx” operations, tightly linked to NATO and today’s context of Russia-Ukraine war. A smooth transition to soon become an army general.
With upcoming responsibilities and a near future in Paris, Jacques is excited but also saddened. “This means moving far away from the mountains that made the man I am today”.