Emile Bernis – Archives of Service Civil International

Emile Bernis

After the end of my training as an electrician, I completed my military service in 1947. A few months later, I was called up by the Army, which was mobilizing again some of the reservists, in connection with the largescale strikes which were taking place at that time. I did not answer, because I disagreed with such a role of the Army, in connection with the specific context rather than as a pacifist (I was not a conscientious objector at that time and it was not a widespread idea during that period). I had informed SCI and offered to participate in a workcamp and I wrote: “One year is enough to learn how to shoot against people who do not have the French label. I believe that it would be a fair compensation to work for several months for something else than war. I therefore wanted to work with you. And now, ‘they’ would like to teach us how to shoot at French people. Never mind. I know that I am not the only one to say “no”. But I feel that it would be unfair to stay quietly at home when my mates spend bad days in the barracks. This is why I insist on joining your work”.

My first workcamp was in Roissy, North of Paris, in March 1948. The project included different activities for the renovation of a building and of a property used by SCI. What I remember is essentially the friendship with the participants. This workcamp was followed by many others. One of them was in Vercheny, in the South-East of France, where I met Nelly Forget, with whom I am still in touch to-day.

In 1948, I was in the workcamp of Tagmount-Azouz, near Tizi-Ouzou in Algeria, on which Pierre Martin, has written a book. He wrote in a letter to the French Committee: “This workcamp is not quite typical of SCI, but I believe that will trust me to adapt it to the local customs, which are so different from the European ones. That it is hard to realize whether one is away in terms of space or of time. And although the customs are so specific, we find here people who have knocked about the world and can speak English or German. We also find a concern for justice, equality and democracy that you can find only in Switzerland. I feel that it will be hard for us to leave this country”.
This project was to build a house in the village, whose inhabitants could not afford to pay; it included earthwork, looking for construction stones with the villagers, and maintenance of a fountain. I remember an Algerian volunteer, Nourredine, who was fully integrated with the life of the group. We were there to be with the villagers and to work with them. Their reactions were positive. Much later I came back to visit them and I had a very warm reception.

At the end of the workcamp, the local police officer invited the volunteers to eat a couscous and he said: “Ah, if only France, instead of sending all these soldiers, had sent a team like you in Algeria, we would have been subdued a long time ago”. Another comment came from Albert Camus, the Nobel Prize novelist, who was a supporter of SCI and wrote: “This success is encouraging for me personally. A writer who wants to be a witness sometimes feels he is lonely. One may have doubts. But you are demonstrating every day that men can meet each other, that the dialogue is always possible and that loneliness does not exist” ( P. Martin, ibid.).
During the following years, I participated in various SCI workcamps in France, near Vézelay (Burgundy) and at Ceillac (in the Alps). My main contribution was my participation to the workcamp in Pressignac, in Dordogne (South-West).
This workcamp was an important moment in the history of the French branch of SCI. Following a hunger strike by Louis Lecoin, a friend of SCI, supported by the movement, General de Gaulle had given his agreement to a status for conscientious objectors. He also promised that a solution would be found for those who were in jail at Mauzac (Dordogne), where they were treated as ordinary criminals. SCI then offered to the Ministry of Justice to organize, as an experiment, the first workcamps for conscientious objectors. In April 1962, through Henri Roser, buildings for holiday camps were put at the disposal of SCI to receive objectors and volunteers. After this experimental project, SCI was in charge in 1964 of the organization of activities for conscientious objectors in Brignoles (Provence).

I took a three-month leave without pay to be the leader of this camp, which received around twenty objectors, then imprisoned in the Mauzac jail. The aim was to start the construction of a village club. There were two types of volunteers. the Jehovah’s witnesses, who refused the military service for religious reasons and the conscientious objectors, who were pacifists and who were striving to give a meaning to their commitment on the workcamp.

There were discussions in the camp, but no organized group discussions like those in the typicial SCI workcamp. While the technical leadership of the workcamp was entirely within my field of competence, I was not able to take over the discussion of SCI aims and methods. At that time, there was no training inside SCI to prepare the team leaders for this responsibility. This situation occurred again in 1987 in Ceillac, where I was again the team leader.
Although the conscientious objectors were no more in jail, there were nevertheless warders who were supposed to look after them. For instance, it was forbidden to take pictures. I did nonetheless, but I was scolded. The warders had been selected for their good will and they lived in the same house as the others.
After the end of my leave, I left and the leadership of the workcamp was taken over by Pierre (Pierrot) Rasquier,
I have also been a member of the National Committee of the French branch during the 60s. I have seen its evolution in relation to the national context: recognition of conscientious objection, work with the slum in Nanterre and so on. To-day, I see that there are less traditional “pick and shovel” camps and more actions for unprivileged people. This requires a qualification and a training and it is less easy to achieve a cohesion of the group and to develop a team spirit than when everybody works together with a pick, a shovel and a wheelbarrow.


  1. This did not have any consequences with the Army.
  2. P. Martin : En Kabylie, dans les tranchées de la paix, Beyrouth, 1953. Quotation from : 50 ans au service de la paix. Les mémoires de la branche française. Travail collectif coordonné par Etienne Reclus, SCI, 1980.
  3. Henri Roser (1899-1981), a Protestant minister, has been a most respected president of the French branches of SCI (from 1949 to the late 60’s) and of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (see above, chapter 1). A friend of Pierre Cérésole, he stood as early as 1923 for conscientious objection and was strongly committed to the issue, as well as the criticism of the war in Algeria, together with the Secretary general, Etienne Reclus.
  4. Mémoires de la branche française, op.cit.
  5. He was famous for his dynamism and dedication. He organized a team of volunteers who could be called in case of emergency. He left memories of his life and experiences.