Americans struggle to meet the French Foreign Legion’s high bar
CAMP DE CARPIAGNE, France — For almost 200 years, the French Foreign Legion has prided itself on offering a haven for men yearning for adventure and a new start in life.
It was just what “Edward,” a 24-year-old Californian, was looking for after he was booted out of the U.S. Marine Corps in 2015 for a disciplinary infraction.
“I can’t go into too much detail about what I did, but I was young and very stupid, and that’s why I’m no longer in the Marines,” Edward said.
Edward — who has a new identity given to him by the Legion — is now an anti-tank missile operator in the 1st Foreign Cavalry Regiment based near Marseille on the Mediterranean coast.
He is one of what he says are “several dozen” Americans in the elite formation that is still the hard core of the French army. Though many Americans have served with distinction in the Legion’s many wars, their numbers have fallen in recent years.
After drifting through several civilian jobs in southern California, Edward decided he missed the comradeship of military life. He traveled to France, where he reported to a Legion recruitment center in Paris.
“Everyone in the U.S. military knows about the Foreign Legion, but in a general, mythical way, without much solid information,” he said in an interview with Stars and Stripes arranged by the Legion. “So I decided to give it a try.”
Soon after it was formed in 1831 to participate in France’s occupation of Algeria, the Foreign Legion acquired a reputation as a refuge for criminals and fugitives from justice. But today’s recruits in the 8,900-man unit undergo rigorous background checks by Interpol and France’s own intelligence services to ensure that no one with major criminal convictions makes it into the ranks. Still, those seeking “to put some distance between themselves and the law” for less serious offenses are accepted and encouraged to assume new identities.
Making the gradeRecruiters can afford to be discriminating. Every day, several dozen men hoping to enlist arrive in Aubagne and in other recruitment centers throughout France, officers say.
The selection process is notoriously harsh, and only one in nine candidates will ever don the Legion’s trademark white kepi. Applicants must be between 17 and 40 years old. They must be foreign, though this rule is often glossed over. About 16 percent are French nationals who join posing as citizens of other French-speaking countries, such as Belgium or Canada.
Legionnaires can apply for French citizenship after their first three years of service and about 80 percent do so eventually.
Edward said he immediately “fell in love with the Legion” and wanted to make it a career. While boot camp was extremely tough, both physically and psychologically, the longer one remained, the easier life became. Promotions come relatively quickly for those committed to a military career, he said.
“I am totally satisfied and I hope to make corporal next year and then be promoted to a noncommissioned officer,” Edward said, adding that his goal is to become an officer.
Most of the Legion’s officers are graduates of France’s prestigious St. Cyr military academy, but about 10 percent of them are promoted from the ranks.
The world’s most cosmopolitan military force comprises soldiers from about 140 countries. Recruits tend to come in waves — Germans in the 1940s and ’50s and English-speakers in the 1980s. After the Cold War ended, many volunteers came from Russia and Eastern Europe. They have now been replaced by a surge of applicants from Latin American and Asian nations such as Nepal.
Edward said that Americans still regularly apply but that many — even former servicemembers — fail the recruitment tests and the four-month-long basic training. Others drop out during the first year.
“I’m surprised by that, because being here is very similar to military service in the States,” Edward said. Even pay rates are broadly similar, he added.
“But there are some differences, including the fact that when you sign a contract in the U.S. you belong to the Army for the next several years, but here you can ask to be released and they’ll let you go without too much hassle,” he said.
The Americans tend to have trouble learning French, Edward said, acknowledging that it wasn’t easy for him either. Language lessons are a daily requirement and struggling candidates are assigned “binomes,” or legionnaires from French-speaking countries, who make sure their charges learn the rudimentary 400 words needed to complete basic training.
Unlike France’s regular armed forces, the Foreign Legion is a male-only unit. And during the first five years of service, a legionnaire is banned from marrying. “They make sure there are no problems with adultery, jealousy and/or divorce,” Edward said.
The Legion recently received some unwanted publicity in the United States after being linked to two military court cases involving Americans.
Army 2nd Lt. Lawrence Franks left his unit at Fort Drum in 2009. He flew to France and joined the Legion, where he was given a new name and a new rank — legionnaire second class, the equivalent of a private.
Despite being promoted several times, Franks surrendered to U.S. authorities one day after he completed his five-year Legion contract. In 2014, the West Point graduate was convicted of desertion and sentenced to four years in prison.
Bowe Bergdahl, who was recently dishonorably discharged from the Army on desertion charges after slipping from his base in Afghanistan, initially also tried to enlist in the Legion but was turned down for poor eyesight, after being rejected by the Coast Guard.
Rising ranksThe elite unit, whose numbers sank to under 7,200 men in the past decade, is now expanding, said Lt. Col Jean-Philippe Bourban, head of the Legion’s media section. He declined to discuss numbers of troops from various nations, saying the Legion evaluated its troops by individual performance, not nationality.
Scheduled interviews with two other Americans were canceled when they were assigned to guard duties in Marseilles. Since the terrorist attacks in Paris and Nice, legionnaires have joined French troops guarding public buildings and tourist sites around the country.
The French army’s current plans call for the Legion’s combat regiments to have more than 9,000 troops by the end of 2018, he said.
“There is no lack of candidates, but Americans don’t make up a large part of our recruitment, and they don’t normally stay after their first contract,” Bourban said. “Recruitment has always depended heavily on candidates from regions in turmoil, and North America and Europe are very stable and prosperous.”
Bourban pointed out that the Legion has a long history of working closely with the U.S. military in training exercises and in combat operations in the Middle East and Africa. Its units have regularly participated in exercises with the U.S. Marine Corps in France, the United States and Africa.
One such joint exercise, Bold Alligator 2017, a Navy and Marine Corps amphibious exercise, wrapped up this past month in North Carolina.
Don’t talk politicsDuring a recent visit to the Legion’s main recruitment center at Aubagne in southern France, 10 young men in civilian clothes sat listlessly on benches outside, waiting to be invited into the main reception room.
Many of those applicants are drawn to the Legion’s storied past, which includes fighting in some of the world’s fiercest wars, officers say. British spy novelist Len Deighton once wrote, “In our far-travelled, communication-lated permissive society, there are few remaining conversation stoppers. But any man who can say ‘I served with the Legion’ is guaranteed an audience.’”
Timothy Cool, a 27-year-old corporal from Menash, Wisc., said the mystique was one of the reasons he decided to give it a try.
“Back home I tried to join the U.S. Navy but was turned down for having had eczema when I was in elementary school,” he said.
“Both my father and grandfather had served (in the U.S. military), so when I told my dad I was considering the French Foreign Legion he was very supportive,” he said, standing near a wall bearing the Legion’s motto: “Legio, Patria Nostra” (The Legion, Our Homeland).
Cool, who joined in 2013, had just re-upped for a new three-year contract. He said he plans to ask for permission to marry his girlfriend in Marseilles as soon as his five-year tour of duty is up in February. He also plans to apply for French citizenship.
Cool — who did not change his name after joining – was first assigned to a combat engineer unit. After it was discovered that he had played the French horn in high school, he was transferred to the Legion’s marching band, based in Aubagne.
The band is in high demand in France and other allied countries, and Cool has twice marched in France’s Bastille Day military parade in Paris. “I enjoy the work and the people around me,” Cool said. “And I like living on the French Riviera. What’s there not to like?”
Since many of the band’s musicians are Russian, Cool tends to avoid discussing politics with his buddies. “They all follow the Russian news, so any criticism of Czar Putin is a sure way to lose good friends.”
Unlike some nations’ military bands, which consist of professional musicians, the Legion’s orchestra is strictly amateur, he said.
“We’re musicians, but we’re also combat soldiers — not just pretend soldiers,” Cool said.
Cool said that although the French and American militaries are very similar in many ways, cross-cultural differences do crop up, especially among those who have served in the U.S. armed forces.
For instance, a Legion breakfast usually consists of just a cup of black coffee. “So, none of the bacon and eggs that U.S. soldiers are used to,” he said.
A welcome difference is the availability of booze in the French military, although nothing stronger than wine or beer is allowed in the base canteen, he said. The wine comes from the Legion’s own vineyards in Provence, which are tended by former legionnaires living in a veterans home on the property. Active-duty legionnaires are occasionally brought in to help with the harvest.
Switching to watching soccer on TV instead of American football or baseball has been difficult, Cool said. “I now follow European soccer and I play it all the time, but I’m still a die-hard Packers fan.”