Aton, ex-member of GIGN: “At GIGN, I was not only physically injured, I was also psychologically scarred. »

March 03, 2024 / Jerome Goulon

Philippe B, alias Aton, was a member of the GIGN for 15 years. Now a converted actor and author, he publishes his new book, Prepare for the worst!, published by Albin Michel, in which he gives advice on how to defend yourself against increasing insecurity. We interviewed him on this occasion. A striking testimony…

Interview: At what age did you know you wanted to enter GIGN?
Aten: At 16, when I witnessed the GIGN operation in Marseille Marignane on the Air France plane, December 26, 1994. It was the first operation really filmed by the media. It fascinated me. Basically, I wanted to be an actor and that sparked a vocation. 

How do we integrate the GIGN? 
You must have served a certain number of years in the gendarmerie and be at least 25 years old. Then, you must submit a request to take the GIGN entrance tests. We have a week of testing where we are evaluated physically, on our phobias for example, such as the fear of heights, or how we behave with tear gas. We have a lot of interviews, combat sports, stress management, physical and psychological tests. After this week, where more than 80% of gendarmes fail, there are no more than two months of pre-training where we are excessively evaluated both physically and psychologically. And there, if we succeed in that, we go on to train for more than a year. 

What do we learn at the GIGN school? 
We learn to shoot, move quickly by car and motorbike. We handle explosives, we do parachute jumping, diving. We also learn how to enter all types of buildings, from planes to buses. And then we also do long distance shooting.

What are the main qualities required?
The sense of commitment, availability, courage and discipline. 

What would you say to someone who wants to make this their career? 
To be sure of himself (Laughs). To carefully evaluate the objective, to find out what the job is. By reading books, watching reports, asking questions to accessible operational staff. For example, I follow him on social networks and I respond when I can respond. But really, to study well in order to know the advantages and disadvantages of the profession. It really is a life. It is a choice for oneself and for the family.

Are you a secret agent when you belong to the GIGN? 
No. Not at all, we're just a discreet agent. (Laughs) In fact we don't show our faces because we experienced a sort of fatwa following the intervention in Marignane in 1994, so there is a jihadist threat to the GIGN and since then, it has not been lifted. So we preserve the anonymity of the GIGN.

What are your main daily missions?
Our missions are anti-terrorism and counter-terrorism on French territory. We also arrest organized crime and arrest dangerous individuals, such as madmen, people who are losing their minds and who go shooting in the street or at home. We also intervene in go fast and large-scale drug trafficking. These are very technical interventions which can be carried out on motorways at high speed. It requires great mastery of driving and technique to intercept cars going at more than 200 km/h. Then, it could be arrests as part of legal investigations of network heads. There are also other missions such as the protection of sensitive embassies in which French interests are threatened. There is also everything that will involve researching information, shadowing, then the close protection of the president. 

Is there a mission that struck you more than others?
I am often asked this question. Many things marked me. The protection of sensitive embassies, the evacuation of nationals to Libya in 2014, the Kouachi brothers in 2015… I was also in Kosovo for the arrest of war criminals. I have been in Baghdad, in close protection, I have done training in Lebanon, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. If I had to cite one, it would perhaps be the intervention on the hostage-taking of the sailboat Ponant, in 2008. Otherwise, I could above all tell you that what touched me the most was having been confronted with poverty and human distress around the world. At GIGN, I was not only physically injured, I was also psychologically scarred. We don't come out of all this unscathed, but I still come out of it grown.

Did you fear for your life? 
Yes several times. 

What does killing people do? 
It hurts. Killing people is a sacrifice we make, it is a failure of humanity. Every cartridge fired is a failure of humanity. In the sense that there is always a possibility of avoiding it. I am not solely responsible for every cartridge I fired. All the people who have one day crossed the path of those who are killed by the GIGN, and who have not done their job, whether social services, parents or others. The responsibility for each person killed by the GIGN is shared by all of society. That's how I see things. Some may not agree...

What was the underlying reason for your commitment? 
The feeling of usefulness. Aside from that and cinema, I didn't see what else I could do. I wanted to give meaning to my life.

How do you manage your family life when you are a member of the GIGN?
The key is communication, putting yourself within reach of the other. When you have saved a life, when you have freed hostages, you must not put yourself above your wife and devalue what she does.

It happens often ?
Some got lost. They told themselves that their job was more important than that of their wife, because they were saving lives. I think we need to find a balance. We definitely take GIGN at home, because we are on alert all the time. You have to know how to find the right balance, not to bring it back too much, not to break down. We must avoid creating a divide, encourage listening, dialogue, but without it polluting the couple. This is not obvious…

But can we still have a family life? 
It's difficult. You can leave at any time in the middle of the night. We know when we're leaving, but we never know when we'll come back. You have to have a close-knit family and a strong wife, because she can get fed up very quickly. The charm, the exotic side of being with a member of the GIGN, it passes quickly... 

Was your partner aware of your missions? 
Not always. On the other hand, she knew the level of risk based on my position. If I was in the first column, I told him that it was more tense, and when I was on another mission, even if there are no small missions, I told him not to worry . 

I imagine that GIGN members can't tell their wives about their missions? 
No, we can't say what we do. I'll take an example: some already know the positions they will have for the 2024 Olympics. They know roughly what they are going to do, but they cannot talk to their wives about it. Same for go fast, we don't say anything. We know we're going to be gone for several days, but not for how long, so we can't say anything.

Let's talk money. How much does a GIGN member earn? 
I started at €2 and ended, over the last six months, at €400. And we retire around 3 or 500, because it's very tiring. 

What is your vision of society today? 
I'm quite disappointed, but it's personal. My vocation was to fight terrorism, to ensure that everything that happened abroad did not happen in France. But between the time I entered GIGN and the time I left, insecurity exploded. We have more terrorist acts, we have more delinquency. I really wanted my children to be safe. All these sacrifices that I was able to make, with my colleagues, I hoped that this would allow our children to live in a slightly more secure environment. Unfortunately, that's not the case... Politicians talk about a feeling of insecurity, but no, it's not just a feeling! We are increasingly faced with insecurity...

What solution do you recommend? More severity? 
I don't think it's the role of the police to provide education. The police are repressing. I think that parents have the first role to play, as well as National Education. Personally, I am in favor of a return to national service for men and women. It needs something obligatory and challenging. At least six months. 

Do you think the French like their law enforcement? 
Despite what we see, what politicians do and what the media say, I sincerely think so! The majority of French people respect and love their law enforcement. They understand that there are idiots everywhere, but that we shouldn't mix them up either. The job is very complicated at the moment...

Finally, in your book you talk about how to defend yourself during an attack or burglary. We have often heard of cases where people attacked in their homes were convicted for defending themselves. At home, do we have the right to defend ourselves?
Yes, everyone has the right to defend themselves, but it must be within the framework of self-defense. There is a legal framework. What I advise instead, in the case of a burglary: as long as the bandits, potentially violent, have not yet been violent, you must let it happen, and note all the details. The way of speaking, the accent. They do not usually attack a single house, and they may be found. In addition, they often leave traces. If your life is in danger and you have to go, you have to be extremely determined, and not be afraid of hurting yourself. If people come just to take things, it's better not to risk your life.

And in the street, do we have the right to defend ourselves? 
It has to remain proportional. If you have a Swiss army knife on you and someone attacks you with a knife: yes, you are in proportionality. Afterwards, it is good to take an interest in the legal framework and the framework of self-defense. In the book, it is accessible and well explained, unlike the legal texts, which are sometimes a little undrinkable. Then, when you are attacked, I would say that the main thing is to preserve your life and that of your loved ones. There is a phrase that I like: “I would rather be judged by twelve than carried by six.” »And then if I have to do everything I can to protect myself or those close to me because I have no choice and I have to go to court, well that's the way it is. Afterwards, when we are attacked, we are in a state of shock. This is an extenuating circumstance. We are attacked, we didn't ask for anything, we react as best we can and it can be an overreaction. In this case, we can say that we didn't expect it and that we gave everything. 

What weapons are we allowed to have at home?
Without a gun license, I believe you can have a gun that shoots rubber bullets. It's still relatively effective. The alarm gun can create an illusion, but if it doesn't work, that's stupid. The tear gas bomb is good too. And then there's the baseball bat! Someone who wants to attack you, if he sees a baseball bat in your hands, it can deter him. Honestly, everything can be used as a weapon. You still have to think about it. What you need is to change your mind set, project yourself into a situation you don't want to be in and visualize what you have within your reach to defend yourself...

Interview conducted by Marie Giancani