Legendary Force Updates Its Image

Foreign Legion recruits train in Castelnaudary, France. Legionnaires are now required to be proficient with computers and high-tech gear as well as be fit.
Foreign Legion recruits train in Castelnaudary, France. Legionnaires are now required to be proficient with computers and high-tech gear as well as be fit. (By Molly Moore -- The Washington Post)
By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 13, 2007

CASTELNAUDARY, France -- The French Foreign Legion, one of the most romanticized military units in history, is getting a 21st-century makeover.

Out with the images honed by Hollywood -- in movies such as "Beau Geste" and "March or Die" -- of bands of misfits and miscreants dispatched to kill or be killed on sandy fields of battle. Today, the French Foreign Legion's most powerful recruiter is the Internet. Its troops are more likely to be securing the sewers of Nice against terrorists than fighting wars on camel-back in the deserts of Africa.

Most of its soldiers in this era of globalization are economic immigrants rather than Rambos or felons on the run. And modern Legionnaires are required to be as proficient with computers and high-tech gear as with their French Famas automatic assault rifles.

"The new Foreign Legion reflects the international reality," said Brig. Gen. Louis Pichot de Champfleury, 52, commandant of the 7,655-member force. "The reality has changed. The Legion has to have the capability to adapt to a new era, new recruiting, new technologies."

Laye Sylla is typical of the new Legionnaire. The lanky, ebony-skinned 26-year-old was born in Senegal and immigrated to France in search of an education. After graduating from computer training school, he said, he sent out 400 résumés.

"I never got one response," recounted Sylla, echoing a common complaint among Africans and Arabs in France. He applied to the Foreign Legion in search of a job, a paycheck ($1,418 a month), a chance to use his computer skills -- and perhaps a bit of excitement on the side.

Eighty percent of the Legion's recruits join out of economic necessity or joblessness. The other 20 percent are attracted by the glamour, the history, the yearning for adventure -- and the Internet recruiting site.

Gandolf Samual, a 21-year-old Canadian part-time tree-planter and occasional oil-rig worker, was fed up with monotonous jobs and an uneventful life when he logged on to the Internet and found his ticket to adventure and exotic travel.

"All I knew was how legendary the Foreign Legion was," Samual said after four months of training that included doing push-ups with a railroad tie balanced across his back and struggling to follow orders in a language he didn't understand. "I wanted to leave everything behind and start over."

The worldwide reach of the Internet has made today's Legion, with members from 136 countries, the most diverse in its 176-year history.

In a classroom at Bel-Air Farm -- one of four recruit training centers in this rural southern district -- the well-thumbed dictionaries scattered across the rows of scarred wooden desks reflect the cultural shifts that have occurred in the Foreign Legion: French-Chinese. French-Korean. French-Japanese. French-Spanish. French-Romanian.

"Une fourchette!" shouted the instructor, holding a fork above his head.


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