French military

Is French Foreign Legion still an elite, international fighting force?

Soldiers of the Foreign Legion's pionniers regiment march during the annual Bastille Day parade July 14, 2019 on the Champs Elysées avenue in Paris.
Soldiers of the Foreign Legion's pionniers regiment march during the annual Bastille Day parade July 14, 2019 on the Champs Elysées avenue in Paris. AP - Kamil Zihnioglu

France’s Foreign Legion, the national army's elite infantry force, has long attracted men the world over looking for adventure, a new start in life and the promise of French nationality. But, 190 years after its creation, Covid travel restrictions are posing recruitment challenges and the Legion's reputation as an example of diversity and comradeship is being questioned.

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The closest most people in France will get to a légionnaire is on 14 July when a unit from the Foreign Legion marches down the Champs-Elysées in Paris as part of the Bastille Day military parade.

The Legion’s pionniers regiment, with their long beards, white caps and leather aprons, make for memorable photos. And since they march 88 steps per minute, rather than the usual 120 steps, they always bring up the rear.

The legionnaires march to a different drum in other ways too.

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Spotlight on France episode 50
Spotlight on France episode 50 © RFI

This exclusively-male fighting force is made up of 9,000 individuals from some 140 countries. While the unit is based in France and always serves French interests, the men pledge allegiance to the Legion itself whose motto is Legio Patria Nostra (The Legion is our Fatherland).

“We are crafty/We are rogues/Not ordinary types,” goes their anthem “Le Boudin” (meaning blood sausage). “Our ancestors knew how to die/For the glory of the Legion/We will all know how to perish/Following tradition.”

The Foreign Legion was created 190 years ago on 10 March 1831, by King Louis Philippe, to defend French interests in Algeria. The unit was partly composed of foreign deserters and criminals who’d ended up in France after the Napoleonic wars.

No fewer than 35,000 legionnaires have died since then, many anonymously, while defending and expanding French colonies during the 19th century, in the two world wars, and in numerous other conflicts.

In the last two decades they’ve been deployed to more than a dozen countries, from Bosnia to Congo, Rwanda to Iraq, Somalia to Afghanistan.

Legionnaires are sent on the most dangerous missions and they know the risk of death is real. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, volunteers keep on coming.

A second chance

Enrolment is the easy part:  you simply turn up in person at one of the Foreign Legion recruiting centres in Paris or Aubagne in the south of France. You don’t need to speak French.

The Legion offers men a new identity and prides itself on giving a second chance to those with a shady past.

The unit still has a reputation as a haven for criminals. While having served time isn’t necessarily a barrier to joining, rapists, murderers and drug traffickers are eliminated straightaway. The Legion is backed up by Interpol, foreign embassies and French intelligence services to weed out unsuitable applicants.

“We’re prisoners of our image,” Colonel Lecour Grandmaison said in a French TV documentary. “Candidates sometimes think they have to admit to a lot of crimes to get in […] but we don’t want to put French weapons in the hands of people we don’t know or who’ve committed crimes.”

The citizenship carrot

Other young men are driven into the Legion out of need. The promise of regular meals, decent accommodation and a monthly starter salary of around €1,300 is a big incentive when your home country is wracked by civil war, famine and economic misery.

And three years into their five-year contract, recruits can apply for French citizenship.

That package comes at a price. The selection process is gruesome and only one out of eight candidates gets through. Securing French citizenship meanwhile requires a certificate of good behaviour from the French hierarchy; the slightest foot wrong can ruin your chances.

Americans in the French Foreign Legion, 1916
Americans in the French Foreign Legion, 1916 © Edward Morlae, Wikimedia Commons

Recruitment problems

“Every year around 8,000 men knock on our door, we have 147 nationalities at present, the result of France’s influence [around the world],” General Alain Lardet told La Croix daily.

But closed borders due to Covid have led to the number of applicants declining by a third in 2020.

“When borders are closed, we are not very Covid-compatible,” Lardet acknowledged.

Parliament was so concerned about the Legion losing its “foreign” DNA that in June 2020 it voted emergency measures to extend the usual age limits and lengths of contract, allowing former legionnaires to be re-recruited.

Abusive system?

While legionnaires have a reputation for being some of the toughest and most disciplined fighters in the world, their image has taken a blow in recent years.

Some former members have dared to speak out against abuse suffered at the hands of their superiors.

Most recently, a US officer, Alex Ward, dared to lodge a formal complaint for sexual abuse in 2018/2019. Three officers were punished.

“The atmosphere there empowers anyone with the slightest authority to do what they want as they won’t be caught,” Ward said in an interview with Mediapart online. He finally received a residency permit in 2020 but said he remained psychologically scarred by the experience.

Another former legionnaire, Alexandre Vinogradov, broke ranks after more than a decade in the service. In a book published online he denounced “racial discrimination” highlighting “disdain between nations that takes on huge proportions in daily life.

“The hierarchy keeps saying we bring together more than 150 nationalities and live like one big family, but it’s false and ridiculous,” he wrote.

He also criticised the way his brother was denied French citizenship after completing his five-year contract, and left to roam the streets in France as an illegal immigrant for years before finally winning his case in court.

A drawing of legionnaires in France in 1863, inspired by uniforms in museum of L'Empéri, south of France
A drawing of legionnaires in France in 1863, inspired by uniforms in museum of L'Empéri, south of France © Jp.negre, Wikimedia Commons

Extremely vulnerable

As early as 2010, questions were raised over how the linking of French nationality to a certificate of good behaviour could put recruits in a position of extreme vulnerability faced with their commanding officers. A parliamentary report by MP Marylise Lebranchu denounced the “exorbitant power” of the Legion’s hierarchy.

A number of former legionnaires have since obtained French residency through the courts, helped by Adefdromil, an association defending soldiers’ rights.

“These men have no legal existence. We play with their identity,” Adefdromil’s president, Jacques Bessy, told Libération daily. “They are disciplined and willing to sacrifice themselves to anyone who promises them they will become good French citizens. But it hides a sordid reality. It isn’t an elite force, it’s cannon fodder.”


This story first appeared in the Spotlight on France podcast.

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