The legend of the Legion

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His cap is bleached as white as the bones of a Saharan camel. Is the romance of the French Foreign Legion a cult of death?

Robert Twigger is a British poet, writer and explorer. His latest book is White Mountain: Real and Imagined Journeys in the Himalayas (2016), and he divides his time between the UK and Egypt.

What comes to mind when you think of the French Foreign Legion? Most likely men struggling through the desert in heavy blue coats and white peaked caps. Men who joined up after a lifetime of crime, fighting valiantly, then leaving the Legion to become tough, faceless mercenaries trading on their background, or else dying in the mud of Dien Bien Phu as the last choppers leave for La Belle France.

The reality is different. In its first version, the Legion was seen as a rough mercenary force that guaranteed immunity from criminal prosecution, as well as a new life and French citizenship. In its second incarnation, the Legion became a sort of substitute family. Now in its third, the official image of the Legion is of an elite fighting force, to be compared with the British SAS or the US Navy Seals. Today, legionnaires are much more than a band of mere ‘expendables’.

The modern Legion still has a few things in common with its previous incarnations. There remains an emphasis on marching (to enter, you have to complete several hikes in full kit, ranging from 50 to 120km) and the men who join are still keen to fight. The wages, though, are now quite good, especially if you see duty in a combat zone. Even the most basic pay of a recruit is €1,205 a month, which, considering there are no bills or food costs, is nothing like the five centimes a day it was in the 19th century. Then, a legionnaire could afford wine or tobacco, not both, and certainly no other luxuries.

Young men still queue to join up in great numbers. Several thousand apply per year, and some 80 per cent are rejected – the Legion doesn’t accept anyone wanted by the police or with a serious criminal record, though misdemeanours and petty crimes are still acceptable. The modern Legion is around 8,000-strong and needs only 1,000 new recruits each year to replenish the ranks. The average recruitment age is 23. In recent times, 42 per cent of recruits come from eastern and central Europe, 14 per cent from western Europe and the US, and around 10 per cent from France. Around 10 per cent come from Latin America and 10 per cent from Asia. These young, rootless men swear their allegiance not to France, but to the Legion itself. It is their only loyalty.

The Legion is composed of several branches: engineers, paras, armoured cavalry, infantry, and pioneers. The paras are based in Calvi on the island of Corsica (they are still not trusted to be on mainland France after a coup attempt in 1961). Other arms are garrisoned in French Guiana and the United Arab Emirates. The Legion saw service most recently in Mali, where they helped restore the government against insurgent Al-Qaeda forces.

Recruits must present themselves at one of several centres in France. If this pre-selection goes well, it’s on to Aubagne, a small town about 20km inland from Marseilles on the Mediterranean. There follows one to two weeks of selection where numerous mental and physical tests are taken. The minimum age is 17.5, the maximum 39.5. There are no educational requirements.

Exhausted legionnaires in a truck following a night of training and only three hours sleep. Nimes, France, August 2015. Photo by Edouard Elias.

Once they make it through selection, recruits sign a five-year contract and are then shipped to ‘the farm’ in the Pyrenees for six weeks of hellish training which further weeds out the unsuitable. Though probably not as tough as SAS selection in the UK, it certainly involves more cleaning, marching, singing and discipline – much more. It is accepted that hard discipline is the only way to weld men from such disparate origins into a single fighting unit. The Legion allows officers to strike the men in a routine manner. The method is age-old and simple: break the man, remove his old allegiances, then give him a new family.

In this new family, recruits are also allowed to choose a new name – the name by which they will be known ever after. And so, by the end, they have become someone new, with a new country and a new identity. Indeed, this is the most obvious pull the Legion has for men: a new life. This life, however, is wrapped up in a world that honours death…



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