Beyond the ‘French Doctors’: The evolution and interpretation of humanitarian action in France

Research reports and studies
October 2012
Eleanor Davey

This Working Paper provides a review of the French experience of humanitarian action over the twentieth century, and of the Francophone literature about this history. It illustrates the importance of national contexts in shaping ideas and discourses about humanitarian affairs, while also reflecting upon their place in a global history.

The importance of the French contribution to international humanitarian action has been clearly and consciously asserted since the emergence of the ‘French doctors’ or sans-frontiériste movement, spearheaded by Médecins sans frontières (MSF), in the 1970s and especially 1980s. Yet at the same time scholars of French humanitarian action have sought to offset the tendency to focus on sans-frontiériste engagement at the expense of earlier examples of French humanitarian action.

Placing interpretations of the past in their contemporary context, the Working Paper argues that some of the narratives about humanitarian history produced since 1980 reflect the context of their own production almost as much as the events they purport to describe. A greater awareness of this dynamic may help to promote reflection on the ways in which understandings of humanitarian action are influenced by the historical, cultural and political context out of which they arise. A stronger appreciation of the way that humanitarian history has been characterised and interpreted in French debates will also be of use to those seeking to understand the forces that have shaped today’s aid architecture and practice.