The first time in my life that I saw a member of the Foreign Legion was at the end of the 1970s, in the small town of Corte on Corsica. He was standing guard in front of a building and his red and green epaulets, his broad beige pants and white peaked cap drew my attention immediately. At the time I was 17 years old and a staunch left-winger. I tried to discern fascism in the line of his chin. I imagined the brutality that must lie behind such a stoic exterior.
But mostly this Legionnaire just looked like a young soldier, a little stupid even, with his cap pulled down so far on his forehead and his stiff military pose. During my youth in France, anti-military feelings were peaking. Among the lower middle class, to which my family belonged, it was just common sense. We read Charlie Hebdo and papered our walls with posters by the cartoonist Jean Cabut.
In large letters, one of them said: “Military justice is to justice what military music is to music”. Above the sentence was drawn an alcoholic soldier, the kind that epitomised the army, according to Cabut’s work. I don’t know what, if anything the soldiers had ever done to me and my contemporaries, but we thought they were despicable.
The elite units and the paratroopers were clearly all fascists and the mountain infantry only escaped our opprobrium because they went skiing in such nice white outfits. And the unit that had a worse reputation than all the others was the Foreign Legion. We heard stories, so simultaneously fascinating and hair raising they were, yes, almost illicit. The Foreign Legion was the incarnation of evil in human form, the opposite of the humanist and non-violent values we had learned.
To this day the Foreign Legion is recognised as an official unit of the French military, an elite corps that is staffed by non-French and that deploys to all corners of the world at the behest of the French state – most recently in Mali - where they do the government’s dirty work.
The Legion was founded in the year 1831, around the time the French were conquering Algeria. It was supposed to bring together various foreign troops that had served in the French army for hundreds of years.
At the time I knew very little of the historical background. They were as mysterious to me as the Sardaukar soldiers in the sci-fi novel, Dune, where soldiers, who had no other home, served without morals or rules according to the orders given them. In my mind, the word, legionnaire, was the same as “henchman”, the brutal foot soldiers of a right wing extremist group.
I cannot be held entirely responsible for these thoughts. Some of it derived from the long French tradition of not wanting to know what the Foreign Legion was up to. Even in French colonial times, the connection between the state and the Foreign Legion was marked mostly by repression and what was left unsaid.
The conquests of new terrain overseas, in which the Foreign Legion played a decisive role, were so brutal (“There is no wrongdoing that is not undertaken,” the French general Berthézène said at the time), that many ran counter to the principles of the French republic. This nation that defended human rights did not want to contemplate the costs of colonial conquest and rule too much.
The Foreign Legion offered the country a simple solution to this moral dilemma, and in fact continues to offer it to this day: In the corps, are soldiers without names, without a background, without a future. It is these “others” that we burden with the dark side of French history, and without a second thought. We don’t owe them anything but they owe France everything. They’ll do what we tell them to and they’ll keep their mouths shut. One doesn’t need to know any more than that about the men who dedicate themselves to the Foreign Legion. In fact, they can even choose new names and identities: When they enter the Foreign Legion, it is with a “declared identity” and they are called by the name they gave. Legal or not, it doesn’t matter.
Over decades, and under this cloak of silence, the Foreign Legion grew in France’s consciousness to become an almost fantastical construct, one that came with social, political and even romantic preconceptions that - depending on your political position – could fascinate or, as in my case in the 1970s, disgust.
The Foreign Legion was only truly real to those who served in it. And they saw it as more than just military service. In fact the Legion was even something of a dream unto itself. After 1945, many former soldiers of the German army joined the Legion, having been recruited in French prisoner of war camps. The young Germans, who had grown up with war, decided to continue with their military adventure rather than return to a destroyed and occupied Germany. A not insignificant portion of the French expeditionary force in the Far East had a German background. That’s why every now and then, the Viet Minh, the League for the Independence of Vietnam, would even produce German-language propaganda.
For the German soldiers the Foreign Legion was the place where they could leave their old identities behind. For most new recruits, the Legion retains this quality today. Anyone who signs up with the Legion now leaves their old life behind and starts anew, free from past social connections. They don’t need to thank anybody for anything and they are responsible only for themselves. Courage, physical power, sexual potency – the Legionnaire is masculinity in the raw. He can do anything and everything, without remorse, both the best and worst.
After the end of the French colonial empire, the raison d’etre of the Foreign Legion began to be questioned. In 1961, French president Charles de Gaulle considered dissolving the Foreign Legion but eventually just did away with the first regiment of foreign paratroopers. This is why the armed wing of French foreign policy still stands today.
In the meantime it has also won more acceptance in French society. Above all this is due to the fact that we are losing sight of the Foreign Legion’s dark history. The guilt about French colonialism – one of the main reasons the Foreign Legion was unpopular for decades – is fading; colonialism is in the distant past.
At the same time the Legion itself has been working on its image. It acts professionally, recruits new members with TV advertising and touts itself as an organisation that offers a multifaceted career for young men. Sometimes it presents itself as an opportunity for adventurers, other times as an elite unit using the most modern technology. Advertising like this would have been unthinkable in the 1970s.
In polite French society, the Foreign Legion of the 21st century no longer carries a gruesome burden. The idea of a military coup carried out with the support of this phalanx of soldiers, that one would have previously been in fear off, now seems absurd. The young Foreign Legion is no longer seen as a bunch of fascists, rather they are French-in-the-making. As much as the Foreign Legion transgressed against French values in the past, it is now being reinvented as a kind of republican ideal. It is a microcosm of what France would love to be: A space where it doesn’t matter what your background, ethnology or identity is, only that you subscribe to certain preordained values.
After two years of service, every Legionnaire has the right to apply for French citizenship. If any Legionnaire is injured while in service, they automatically get this right. Inside the Foreign legion they call this rule “French by spilled blood”.
All of this means that the Foreign Legion is not really so foreign anymore. More than anything it has become part of the militaristic, heroic and imperial vision that the French have of their country, a violent, dark and romantic vision that, as a Frenchman, one can either take pleasure in or not – but one that nobody can withdraw from completely.
The Foreign Legion is like a mirror. When you look into it, you think you’re seeing a vision separate from yourself but really, it is reflecting your preconceptions and visions back at you, showing you what we French truly dream of.