The image above is of a French soldier currently on active duty in Mali. He's wearing a mask that looks like the one a character from Call of Duty wears. This is, somehow, cause for enough indignation that the French military and government have opened an investigation into what they call "unacceptable" behaviour.
The entire controversy appears to stem from the fact the mask makes the guy look like Ghost (pictured below), a character from the Modern Warfare sub-series of Call of Duty games, whose first game was released in 2007. The association people (and some elements of the the French press) have made between the soldier and a character in an "ultra-violent video game" is apparently being seen as something distasteful.
At a press conference earlier this week, reports AFP, French Colonel Thierry Burkhard said the wearing of the mask was "unacceptable behaviour", and that it was "not representative of the action that brought France to Mali to help". French authorities are now trying to identify the soldier, presumably so they can reprimand/make a scapegoat out of him.
Well Col. Burkhard, and everyone who took note of only the observation and whose knee jerked instantly in response, you might want to investigate the mask before investigating the man.
For one, you've got to feel for this particular guy, since skull masks (or balaclavas, which is actually what Ghost is wearing) are incredibly common in armed forces across the world, especially the US. American soldiers have been wearing them, and have been having their pictures taken in them, for years. This isn't one guy acting alone, it's an established "fashion" amongst soldiers worldwide.
Which leads us to perhaps the more important point: the mask was not invented by Call of Duty, or its developers Infinity Ward. Indeed, its presence in the game was inspired by the mask's use by soldiers in real life, as it's been worn by US troops—who first took to it as a fashionable alternative from regular gear (it began life as a designer ski mask) at the beginning of the Iraq War—for almost a decade now, long before development ever began on the Modern Warfare series.
It was even in Hollywood movies before it was in Call of Duty, with 2005's Harsh Times (left) featuring a scene in which Christian Bale is sporting a "skull mask" almost identical to the one "Ghost"—and now this French soldier—wears.
In short, the mask is in Call of Duty because it's associated with real soldiers, not the other way around. If the French are saying it's somehow representative of a video game, it makes no more sense than saying bad tracksuits are only around because of Grand Theft Auto IV. And if they're just upset over the fact the guy is wearing a decorative mask, when he's a soldier fighting a war in which people are going to be killed, then the fact they're worried about this shows their PR priorities are entirely broken.
Could this particular soldier have been influenced by the game? Maybe. I'm sure the prevalence of such headwear has increased since the release of the first Modern Warfare game in 2007. But it's silly for the French to assume, or take some upset commentator's word for it, that this is some kind of video game homage without even knowing who the soldier is (his identity remains a mystery), let alone his reasons for wearing it.
The photographer at the heart of the controversy, AFP's Issouf Sanogo, is "surprised" by the resulting media storm.
"A helicopter was coming in to land and churning up tremendous dust clouds", he told AFP. "Instinctively, all the soldiers grabbed their scarfs to avoid getting a mouthful of sand. It was evening, and rays of sunlight were pushing through the trees and into the dust clouds. It was a lovely light. I spotted this soldier wearing a strange scarf and took the photo. At the time, nothing about the scene seemed especially unusual or shocking. The soldier wasn't posing and there was nothing staged about the image. He was just standing there, protecting his face from the dust, waiting for the chopper to land. No one tried to stop me shooting the picture."