Around with Yves Lacoste

Image: Suzy Hazelwood


The French geographer is still active at the age of 93 and the teachings of his body of work have never been so inspiring for understanding such a dynamic world

"La Géographie, ça sert, d'abord, à faire la guerre”[“Geography serves, above all, to make war”], in any language, it wasn’t – and isn’t – quite a title. It could be a statement. A realization. A provocation. But never a title. These were the initial impressions of the editor François Maspero, which in no way deterred the already experienced French geographer Yves Lacoste from the title of his manuscript on the eve of becoming a book.

The year was 1976. East-West tension was still intensely alive. The Berlin Wall was still intact. The Cold War seemed without end or solution. The acceleration of decolonization in Africa indicated a changing conjuncture. The promotion of military regimes across the Americas showed the true faces of the so-called free world. The North American breaking of the pacts established in Bretton Woods anticipated the beginning of the end of the thirty glorious years in Europe. The oil shock indicated the limits of the prevailing capital accumulation model. The Watergate dossier and the removal of President Richard Nixon were yet another example of the weaknesses of democracy in America. Fragilities perceived worldwide also since Vietnam. And it was by analyzing the Vietnam War that Yves Lacoste recognized that Geography served, above all, for the handling of war.

This recognition as a statement already seemed extravagant. As a title for a book, this extravagance became, according to Lacoste, a scandal. A scandal that went beyond the borders of France; traveled the whole world and made its author one of the most renowned geographers of his generation.

Looking from afar, it could be said to be a book that changed Yves Lacoste's life. But getting closer and comparing the long trajectory of this Frenchman born in Morocco in 1929 and with a vocation for Geography, it becomes clear that “La Géographie, ça sert, d'abord, à faire la guerre” (Paris: François Maspero, 1976) was just one of many turning points of the long life of Yves Lacoste recounted in his beautiful and recent “Aventures d'un géographe” (Paris: Équateurs, 2018).

It all started in Morocco, before the birth of Yves Lacoste and before the Great War of 1914-1918. It all started in 1906.terribilis nudes and decisive for the luck and destiny of Morocco.

Back to context, after the escalation of tensions between France, Germany, Spain and Italy for hegemony and control over Moroccan space – the last African state not colonized by European powers –, the United States intervened and played a leading role in the Conference of Algésiras, in 1906, where the creation of a French protectorate over Morocco was resolved.

Six years later, in 1912, Marshal Hubert Lyautey landed in Casablanca as resident general, who would promote several improvements, of which two initial actions would be decisive for the country and for the Lacoste family. The first was the creation of the State Bank of Morocco. The second, the nationalization of the country's mineral resources. This nationalization made Morocco potentially the most prosperous state in the Maghreb. And, as a result of this nationalization, the Bureau of Research and Participation in Minerals was created, which would have as one of its first directors the geologist Jean Lacoste, father of the future Yves Lacoste.

This position of Jean Lacoste in such a central and important institution in that nascent modern Morocco allowed Lacoste – and, from 1929, Yves Lacoste – a deep and comfortable relationship with contemporary Morocco and France.

In the spring of 1939, after numerous round trip Morocco-Europe, Lacoste decide to settle in France. More precisely in Bourg-la-Reine, in the Paris region. A few months later, the initial enthusiasm turned to apprehension. The news of the German invasion in Dantzig – a region annexed to Poland in 1918 and claimed by Germany since then –, the tension between Finland and Russia and Hitler’s advance towards France announced bad omens and indicated that “the drôle de guerre” maybe it would not turn out to be so funny.

Jean Lacoste, by training and culture, began to follow the cartography of war, military movements and tensions within European borders. From observing these habits of his father so much and the perception of the gravity of the Second World War, reading maps and describing power games became an obsession for the boy Yves Lacoste, in his tender 10 years of life. A life that goes on for a long time – Yves Lacoste is about to turn 94 in 2023 – and an obsession that would run through his entire life.

1942 – with occupied France and Auschwitz experiencing macabre perversities – would bring two strong experiences to the future geographer Yves Lacoste. The first with the death of his father. The second with the meeting with Pierre George.

The death of Jean Lacoste left deep marks on the character of Yves Lacoste. The meeting with Pierre George would completely mark his destiny.

Pierre George was a professor of History and Geography at the Lyceum Lakanal and his wife an arts instructor for Yves Lacoste's brothers. With the death of the Lacoste patriarch, the George family grew closer to the Lacoste family. And it all started with a basket of vegetables.

On one occasion, at his wife's request, Pierre George brought vegetables from his private garden to Lacoste. As a retribution, Mrs. Lacoste asked Yves Lacoste to come to the George house to repay the kindness. In this exchange of pleasantries, Yves Lacoste and Pierre George became aware of each other, and a certain mutual admiration and curiosity began.

Pierre George, since then, came to represent a kind of male and intellectual reference to Yves Lacoste. A reference galvanized in influence and inspiration that would set the paths of the professional life of the young man coming from Morocco.

The Pierre George-Yves Lacoste contact followed dense and intense from 1942 until 1944, when Pierre George went underground. In the several months at the end of the war that were left without meeting, Yves Lacoste would finish his initial training and begin his choice of higher education. In this period of definitions, 1945-1946, the figure of Jean Dresch would reappear in the life of Lacoste.

Jean Dresch had been friends with Jean Lacoste, father of Yves Lacoste, in Morocco. Now in Paris, Dresch was a distinguished professor at the Institute of Geography. On a family suggestion, Yves Lacoste turned to Jean Dresch for vocational guidance. And Jean Dresch, without further hesitation, suggested that Yves Lacoste pursue Geography. To which Yves Lacoste welcomed. The year was 1946.

Yves Lacoste's early years at the Institute of Geography, on rue Saint-Jacques, in Paris, were filled with discoveries. Initially, he confirmed his vocation as a geographer based on the classes and seminars of Max Sorre, Jean Tricart and Jean Dresch himself. Following, of his political conviction by quickly joining the French Communist Party. And, finally, the love of his life, his classmate and geographical adventurer, Camille Dujardin (1929-2016), to whom he would be married for almost sixty years.

Once formed, in 1950, all roads led Yves Lacoste and Camille Lacoste-Dujardin to underdeveloped countries. A little before 1950, Jean Dresch sent them to Casablanca for a field study and in 1952 the same Jean Dresch got them their first job in Algeria, in Algiers. And it was in Algeria and Algiers that Yves Lacoste would have his first contact with the work of the North African historian Ibn Khaldoun. And with Ibn Khaldoun Yves Lacoste would have his first great divider of horizons in the field of Geography, as he would rediscover and rewrite the history and representation of North Africa in various studies, conferences and in his “Ibn Khaldoun. Naissance de l'Histoire, passé du tiers-monde” (Paris: François Maspero, 1966).

Returning to Paris in 1955, after tensions between the National Liberation Front, the National Liberation Army, the Algerian National Movement and the French government had intensified, Yves Lacoste began to teach at the Institute of Geography and began to live with Jean Dresch and Pierre George, who had been promoted to professor at the Sorbonne after 1945. But two very striking ones. One in 1958. Another in 1967.

The month was May and the year, 1958. The dispute between France and Algeria seemed unresolved. The French government was completely destabilized. Franco-Algerian society was on the brink of civil war. And General Charles de Gaulle was on the verge of returning to power. After another day of work, Yves Lacoste and Pierre George returned from Paris to Bourg-la-Reine, updating themselves on the current situation and on the new publications in the collection “what-sais-je” under the direction of Pierre George. “Geographie économique du monde","Industrial geography of the world","Agricultural geography of the world"and "United States Geography” had achieved relative success with critics and audiences due to their succinct and assertive nature. But a good text on underdeveloped countries still needed to be written. The theme of underdevelopment continued to be influenced by the dependency narrative and the development models imposed by the United Nations since 1945.

Even if stimulating, ECLAC's studies seemed too stylized and reductionist to geographic eyes. The great challenge was to problematize this dependency and better diagnose its consequences. Until that moment, Pierre George had refused all manuscripts on the subject submitted to the collection. And it was about these refusals that he, Pierre George, was talking to Yves Lacoste on that trip, when Lacoste, without further embarrassment, offered to write a book that would not be refused. Pierre George resisted at first, but then acquiesced. And in the six months that followed Yves Lacoste would write the 128 pages of the book “Les Pays sous-développés” (Paris: Puf, 1959), which would make him known in the four corners of the planet.

"Les Pays sous-développés” exceeded all expectations. Following the tone and form of the other texts in the collection, Yves Lacoste intertwined concepts of Economy and Demography and demystified the notions of capitalism and colonialism. The success of the undertaking was such that irregular and unauthorized copies were smuggled into practically all countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. So that it became impossible to measure the total scope of the work that, clearly, rocked the world discussion on the decolonization processes that would accelerate from 1962 onwards and the new breaths of geographic science that also began to disentangle itself from its old contributions.

A few years later, in 1967, it would be Jean Dresch's turn to change the course of Yves Lacoste's life. The planetary success of his "Les Pays sous-développés”, followed by his important “Geographie du sous-developpement” (Paris: Puf, 1965) and his studies on Ibn Khaldoun, he had already consolidated his career and his name in the field of Geography and Human Sciences. But in 1967 Jean Dresch had gotten his hands on an official document from the North Vietnamese government indicating that the Americans were bombing the Red River dikes. This bombing explicitly constituted a war crime. The role of Yves Lacoste – commissioned by Jean Dresch – was to interpret the document and produce interpretative comments to serve as an argument-complaint to the Russell Tribunal, the International Tribunal on War Crimes, which would meet in the vicinity of Paris that year.

Yves Lacoste assisted in the production of the complaint. The effort paid off. The bombings ceased. But the war continued. And in 1972 the bombings resumed. What led Yves Lacoste to publish an important article in the newspaper The world indicating, didactically, the seriousness of those bombings and their subversion of the agreement in 1967. His article was reproduced in newspapers all over the world and the chancelleries and civil organizations of the main countries concerned took a position immediately. Fifteen days after publishing your impressions on the Le Monde, an anonymous caller pleaded with Yves Lacoste to “come to Hanoi”, where the situation was “very serious".

The seriousness of the situation was plausible, but the anonymous call had not brought with it the practical instruments for the trip, namely: visa, tickets, contacts. Because of this, Yves Lacoste went to consult diplomatic representations, especially Soviet ones, in Paris. It was the Soviets who somehow managed the North Vietnamese counteroffensive. And it was they, the Soviets, who immediately organized Yves Lacoste's Paris-Moscow-Hanoi trip.

Once in Hanoi, Yves Lacoste was received by officials of the Vietnamese general staff who organized his visit with the aim of producing Western – in this case, French – testimonies of the genocide that the US bombings were about to promote. The United States had been denying the bombings over the Red River delta. It was therefore necessary to overcome doubt. Yves Lacoste's purpose was to have access to official cartography of the region and photos of the bombing. About the letters, Colonel Ha Van Lo promised to provide. About the photos, they would need to be done on-site visit. And so it was. Once the collection of evidence was complete, Yves Lacoste had to return to France and circulate the information among the legal authorities. And so it was. But before leaving Hanoi, the Vietnamese Prime Minister would send him a message in the form of reflection “vous savez, pour nous, la France, c'est quelque chose"[You know that for us France is something important].

Back in Paris, Yves Lacoste went directly to the editorial office of the The world to publish the official map of the Red River delta, the points bombed by the Americans and the geostrategic comments. That publication, like the previous one, went around the world. And on the same night of its publication, Pope Paul VI would have read it and immediately telephoned, from Rome to Washington, President Richard Nixon, who would have committed himself to accelerating the end of the conflict. Which in fact would happen months later.

After the war – the United States and North Vietnam ended the conflict in 1973, but North Vietnam and South Vietnam remained at war until 1975 – Yves Lacoste had become a kind of world star of Human Geography and Political Geography. His books and articles and ideas traveled even stronger and more intensely across all continents. Geographers around the world began to renew their understanding of Geography itself from his writings. Until André Fontaine, director and editor of the international area of The world, would dare to rehabilitate the prescribed and cursed Geopolitical expression by stating that “cette guerre pour du territoire, c'est de la géopolitique"[this turf war, that's geopolitics] Consequently, every interpretation by Yves Lacoste was finally recognized as a geopolitical interpretation of the Vietnam War.

Since 1945, Geopolitics – the expression and the concept – had come out of textbooks and international public opinion. The general consensus indicated that this area of ​​Geography – founded by Friedrich Ratzel in the XNUMXth century and promoted as a “state conscience” by Karl Haushofer in the interwar period – had been used as a Nazi instrument for expanding power during Hitler's Nazi period. Yves Lacoste's interpretations of the Vietnam War allowed the concept to be aired and, especially, the recognition of its actuality. And in that sense, all of Yves Lacoste's later efforts were to revive the term and its applications. And the space used for this endeavor was that of the magazine “Herodotus".

Imagined in 1972, when Yves Lacoste returned from Hanoi, but opened only 1975-1976, “Herodotus” proposed the meeting of young geographers coming from Vincennes – the University of Vincennes, which had been created after the 1968 protests with the purpose of renewing the French university structure – and intellectuals (and professors) from all areas of Humanities and Human Sciences with contributions interested in studies of Strategy, Geography and Ideology. Little by little "Herodotus” was becoming a world reference on Geopolitics and Yves Lacoste, the genuine patron of the area.

The publication of "Les Pays sous-développés"and "La Géographie, ça sert, d'abord, à faire la guerre” as well as the creation of the magazine “Herodotus" can be recognized as strong moments in the trajectory of Yves Lacoste and the fabric of his memories "Aventures d'un géographe”. But "Aventures d'un géographe” contains yet another endless impressions, approaches and trips by Yves Lacoste. His Relations in Cuba and the Americas. Your contributions to United Nations agencies. His interventions in African and Asian countries. His discussions of the Mediterranean. His reflections on method and representation in geopolitics.

His denial ofgéographie appliquee” [applied geography], proposed by Michel Phlipponneau and Jean Tricart. Its adoption and dissemination of the “active geography” [active geography], by Pierre George. His departure from Pierre George on account of the magazine "Herodotus”. Her rapprochement with Pierre George after thirty years of mutual silence. His interaction with the geographer Béatrice Giblin in the creation, management and direction of “Herodotus”. His disillusionment with the François Mitterrand Presidency (1981-1996). His disagreement with the geographer Michel Foucher (1946- ). His demystification of postcolonial debates. His last goodbye to Camille Lacoste-Dujardin, his lifelong companion, in 2016.

This is the life and work of Yves Lacoste outlined in this book “Aventures d'un géographe” – a truly well-thought-out, well-written book that would urgently deserve a Portuguese version. Yves Lacoste is still alive, still active at the age of 93 and the teachings of his body of work have never been so inspiring for understanding such a dynamic world.

*Daniel Afonso da Silva Professor of History at the Federal University of Grande Dourados. author of Far beyond Blue Eyes and other writings on contemporary international relations (APGIQ).

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