Fabled Foreign Legion Fading With Time
Tuesday, October 31, 2006; 2:23 PM
AUBAGNE, France -- The Foreign Legion isn't what it used to be. Murderers on the run are no longer welcome, and unhappy recruits have a year to back out without being branded deserters.
These days a bigger issue faces the 175-year-old force that made its name fighting France's overseas battles in jungle and desert. Its key role _ to be a crack professional force available for rapid, no-questions-asked deployment in far-flung conflicts _ has all but evaporated.
In campaigns from Algeria to Vietnam, Madagascar to Mexico, Legionnaires made up the bulk of the combat forces and suffered most of the casualties. Even in Bosnia a decade ago, serving as U.N. peacekeepers for the first time, they made up a significant portion of the French troops there.
But this summer, when Paris contributed a 2,000-strong contingent to the U.N. force in Lebanon, it included only 200 Legion engineers.
For a 7,770-strong force with a carefully nurtured identity epitomized by its trademark white hats or kepis, there's no longer much to set the Legion apart from the rest of the French army. Four years after France ended conscription, all 250,000 members of the armed forces are like the Legionnaires _ professionals and volunteers.
"They are an anachronism, the last remnants of a medieval mercenary tradition," said Dominique Moisi, a political analyst. "While they were the only professionals in a conscript army, they made sense, but not now that everybody else is professional too."
Ironically, the decline comes as the Internet has opened whole new world of recruiting for the Legion which already boasts 130 nationalities in its ranks. The Web site http:/
Legion spokesman Lt. Col. Christian Rascle insisted that France, still intent on being a force abroad, will continue to need the Legion.
"It will politically always be easier to dispatch foreigners rather than French soldiers to such places," Rascle said.
Throughout its history, the Legion repeatedly has endured threats to its survival. Even King Louis-Philippe, who established the corps in 1831, tried to abolish it several years later.
In the 1960s, President Charles de Gaulle sought to disband the Legion after several regiments mutinied against his decision to end French rule in Algeria.
Then, as now, most recruits are men driven from their homelands by political turmoil, economic hardship or by the need "to start life all over again," Rascle said.