The Dark Romance and Grim Reality of Life in the French Foreign Legion


The word “foreign” in the name French Foreign Legion does not refer to faraway battlegrounds. It refers to the Legion itself, which is a branch of the French Army commanded by French officers but built of volunteers from around the world. Last summer I came upon 20 of them on a grassy knoll on a farm in France near the Pyrenees. They were new recruits sitting back-to-back on two rows of steel chairs. They wore camouflage fatigues and face paint, and held French assault rifles. The chairs were meant to represent the benches in a helicopter flying into action—say, somewhere in Africa in the next few years to come. Two recruits who had been injured while running sat facing forward holding crutches. They were the pilots. Their job was to sit there and endure. The job of the others was to wait for the imaginary touchdown, then disembark from the imaginary helicopter and pretend to secure the imaginary landing zone. Those who charged into the imaginary tail rotor or committed some other blunder would have push-ups to do immediately, counting them off in phonetic French—uh, du, tra, katra, sank. If they ran out of vocabulary, they would have to start again. Eventually the recruits would stage a phased retreat back to their chairs, then take off, fly around for a while, and come in for another dangerous landing. The real lesson here was not about combat tactics. It was about do not ask questions, do not make suggestions, do not even think of that. Forget your civilian reflexes. War has its own logic. Be smart. For you the fighting does not require a purpose. It does not require your allegiance to France. The motto of the Legion is Legio Patria Nostra. The Legion is our fatherland. This means we will accept you. We will shelter you. We may send you out to die. Women are not admitted. Service to the Legion is about simplifying men’s lives.

What man has not considered climbing onto a motorcycle and heading south? The Legion can be like that for some. Currently it employs 7,286 enlisted men, including non-commissioned officers. Over just the past two decades they have been deployed to Bosnia, Cambodia, Chad, both Congos, Djibouti, French Guiana, Gabon, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, Rwanda, and Somalia. Recently they have fought in Afghanistan, as members of the French contingent. There is no other force in the world today that has known so much war for so long. A significant number of the men are fugitives from the law, living under assumed names, with their actual identities closely protected by the Legion. People are driven to join the Legion as much as they are drawn to it. That went for every recruit I met on the farm. Altogether there were 43, ranging in age from 19 to 32. There had been 48, but 5 had deserted. They came from 30 countries. Only a third of them spoke some form of French.

The language problem was compounded by the fact that most of the drill instructors were foreigners, too. It would be hard to find a more laconic group. The sergeant supervising the helicopter exercise had mastered the art of disciplining men without wasting words. He was a former Russian Army officer, a quiet observer who gave the impression of depth and calm, partly because he spoke no more than a few sentences a day. After one of the imagined helicopter landings, when a clumsy recruit dropped his rifle, the sergeant walked up to him and simply held out his fist, against which the recruit proceeded to bang his head.

The sergeant lowered his fist and walked away. The chairs took off and flew around. Toward the end of the afternoon the sergeant signaled for his men to dismantle the helicopter and head down a dirt road to the headquarters compound. They rushed to it, carrying the chairs. The farm is one of four such properties used by the Legion for the first month of basic training, all chosen for their isolation. The recruits lived there semi-autonomously, cut off from outside contact, subject to the whims of the instructors, and doing all the chores. They were getting little sleep. Mentally they were having a hard time.

They had been on the farm for three weeks. They came from Austria, Belarus, Belgium, Brazil, Britain, Canada, the Czech Republic, Ecuador, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Madagascar, Mongolia, Morocco, Nepal, New Zealand, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Senegal, Serbia, Slovakia, South Africa, and Ukraine. Seven actually came from France, but had been given new identities as “French Canadian.” After the recruits returned to the compound they had a while to wait before dinner. In the dirt yard a slim, bullying corporal barked them into a disciplined formation in a parade-rest stance: feet apart, eyes fixed forward, hands clasped behind their backs. Then the sky opened up. The men were drenched but did not care. In the winter they might have been less indifferent. Men who have been through winters on the farms insist as a result that you should never join the Legion then. You should go to Morocco, sleep under a bridge, do anything, and wait for spring. The rain stopped. The sergeant extinguished his cigarette. For me, in French, he spared precisely four words: “It is cocktail hour.” He walked across the compound, released the men from formation, and led them through the barn to the back side, where the cocktails were being served. The cocktails were pull-ups and dips and a sequence of synchronized sit-ups punctuated by two brief rests during which the slim corporal strolled across the abdomens of the recruits. Then it was run to the barn to wash, and run to a multi-purpose room to eat.