The Foreign Legion – a French Legend

The Foreign Legion – a French Legend

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They are,
without any doubt, year after year, the most awaited and most applauded
part of France’s annual 14th of July Bastille Day military parade down
the Champs Elysées. If you’re anywhere in France on the day, watch for
them. No matter what kind or how many or how imposing the ever bigger
tanks and ever more sophisticated rockets rumbling by, it’s the
soldiers of the legendary French Foreign Legion that everyone wants to

The best viewing place,
obviously, is from a spot on the parade’s sidelines in Paris. If that’s
not possible, however, they’ll still be the focus of television
coverage throughout the nation. They are instantly identifiable in the
military marching order not only by their slow, deliberate cadenced
88-paces-a-minute marching rhythm, abruptly different from the quick;
synchronized 120 paces-a-minute of other parade participants, but also
by their white képis, green and red epaulettes and rolled up sleeves.

that isn’t enough, you can hardly miss noticing their specialized
engineer units, the Sapeurs or “Pioneers” as they also are known, all
sporting fulsome and obligatory beards, leather aprons and axes carried
like rifles to recall their original role as advance trail breakers for
their Légionnaire colleagues.

military unit anywhere, with the possible exception of the U.S.
Marines, has been so romanticized and eulogized in literature and song,
films and fantasy as the debonair Légionnaires. And for good reason.
They are, by any standard, the elite of the French armed forces, almost
invariably the first to be sent, or often parachuted these days, into
trouble spots around the world where French interests or French
citizens are deemed to be in danger.

often that involves frequently tumult-beset former French African
colonies but the Légionnaires, some 8,500 strong, usually also are the
units of choice for other combat or peacekeeping missions in places,
such as Afghanistan, Bosnia or Kosovo, as part of international
military forces helping to stabilize war-torn regions.

nowadays they look, dress and operate much as modern-day military
forces do anywhere, it’s their aura of mystery, romance and adventure
that set them apart. Rare are the young men in France, or, for that
matter, many other countries, who have not fantasized at one moment or
another about leaving it all behind and running away to join the French
Foreign Legion.

Few, also, are
the adults today who don’t recall one or another of the string of
memorable films about the Légion with such famous stars as Gary Cooper,
Ronald Colman, William Powell, Jean Gabin or, for more recent
generations, Jean-Claude Van-Damme. And what fan of famed French singer
Edith Piaf hasn’t been stirred by her soulful and melancholy rendition
of one of her trademark songs, “Mon Légionnaire?”

the English-speaking world, of course, the benchmark is British author
P.C. Wren’s 1926 novel “Beau Geste,” the story of three brothers who
abandon their comfortable English aristocratic background to
serve–and, for two of them, find death–as Légionnaires in the burning
sands of the Sahara desert. In various makes and remakes of what has
become a classic movie as well as a classic novel, Colman and Cooper
successively had the main hero’s role of Beau Geste, a play on words
that in French means “Gallant Gesture.”

today’s camouflage-khaki-clad Légionnaires utilize the whole panoply of
modern weaponry from machine guns and bazookas to tanks, helicopters
and transport planes, in Beau Geste’s day, they essentially had only
their rifles as fighting tools, and they wore white trousers and black
swallow-tail coats, almost as if they were going to a white-tie ball.
Their white képis all were fitted in the back with cloth shields to
protect their necks from the burning sun of the deserts, which they
traversed on foot, not in tanks or motorized personnel carriers. The
képi remains such a Légion symbol as a headgear that the right to wear
it is accorded, with much ceremony, only after successful completion of
a more than 30-mile march after at least a month of training.

in 1831 to pacify the natives of what is now Algeria but was then
France’s Algerian colony, the Légion won much of its fame as a
“no-questions-asked” haven for men from all nations who might have
something to hide or hide from. Often that has meant the law, but the
motivations also range from a desire to escape from family problems,
national turmoil, oppressive regimes in the candidates’ home countries
or a life that wasn’t fulfilling a prospective Légionnaire’s yen for

Whatever the reasons,
the Légion makes it a point, within limits, not to pry and not to care.
Some identity documents are required at the start and there is a
security background check on prospective recruits who can sign up
initially at any one of 16 recruiting centers around France, all open
365 days a year. Signing up doesn’t guarantee a career in the Légion
however. First a candidate, who must be between 18 and 40 years old,
has to undergo and pass a rigorous medical and three-week interview and
physical training program at the Legion’s headquarters in Aubagne, just
east of Marseilles. During that time he will be not be allowed to write
or phone anyone in the outside world.

basic training follows at Castelnaudary, 30 miles southeast of Toulouse
and a candidate remains on probation for a good six months. If during
that time he fails the rigorous physical or mental entrance and
probationary requirements, he’ll have to finance his own way home. The
Legion won’t get involved.

the days of total “no-questions-asked,” no longer prevail, the Légion
generally will overlook a minor criminal history but not necessarily a
major one and each case is decided on its merits. French language
ability is not required even though all day to day commands and
communication is in French. While many of its enlistees, drawn
literally from all over the world, have only rudimentary or almost no
French language skill to start, most pick up enough within a year to
survive the Légion’s exhaustive requirements. Women and married men are
not accepted in the ranks but nationality doesn’t matter. In fact, the
Légion’s trademark is its openness to recruits from any country.

matters essentially is not where a potential Légionnaire comes from or
what he’s done or chooses to call himself. No barrier is posed to
enlistment under an assumed name if that is desired. What counts is the
commitment to serve France honorably and faithfully for an initial
contract period of at least five years. Once the entrance bar and
probationary period has been cleared, however, three years of loyal and
satisfactory service opens the door to a favorably viewed application
for French citizenship or, if preferred, a 10-year French residence
permit. Life in the Légion is tough, however. Personal moral codes, as
might be suspected, are not necessarily of the highest. Theft is
endemic and desertions by those who can’t support the rigors of Légion
life remain frequent.

On the
more positive side, the Légion has a well-earned reputation for
iron-clad comradeship among its members regardless of their race,
religion or national origins and for forging fearsome fighting units
that have proved their mettle in battles from Mexico to Vietnam and
from Africa to the Crimea. In Vietnam, Légionnaires were among the last
resisting forces in the embattled fortress of Dien Bien Phu in 1945.
And their emblems consistently bear the name of Camerone, the
Alamo-style battle in Mexico in 1863 where a beseiged force of three
Légionnaire officers and 62 soldiers heroically held off a 2,000-man
Mexican army. At the end, the last five surviving Légionnaires perished
in style. They fixed their bayonets and, with characteristic panache,
charged the enemy forces.

Talk about adventure! If that kind of soldier isn’t worth watching, who is?

by Robert Korengold