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.
"Une fourchette!" repeated 49 recruits representing 21 nationalities.
Once an almost exclusively European force, the Legion now counts Asians and Latin Americans among its fastest-growing cadres of soldiers. Although French law forbids the Legion to actively recruit beyond French borders, the Internet has rendered the law almost meaningless.
Commanders say it is even more difficult now to meld dozens of cultures into a single military force. Recruits say the isolation entailed in adapting to a new life in a new language is compounded when none of your bunkmates shares a common language or culture.
"There's a lot of tension between everybody," said Samual, who said he used sign language in the first weeks to communicate with fellow recruits from Nepal, Iraq, Romania and Ukraine.
After four months, recruits are expected to have learned 400 to 600 French words -- enough to get by on the battlefield, in the barracks and at the dinner table. And in the end, said commanders, it is the French language that binds the Legionnaires together as a family of foreigners serving under the French tricolor.
Champfleury, a graduate of France's elite Saint-Cyr military academy, has headed the Foreign Legion since last July. Like 90 percent of Legion officers, he is a member of the regular military.
He is quick to smile and crack a joke. He keeps a souvenir pistol from U.S. Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf in a glass case in his spacious office at the Legion's Aubagne headquarters, a 3 1/2 -hour drive east of here. Legionnaires served under Schwarzkopf during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, made him an honorary private and presented him with cases of wine from the Legion's vineyard in Provence.
Legionnaires now work side-by-side with French police and army troops patrolling train stations and airports as part of counterterrorism efforts. Before a NATO meeting in the southern coastal city of Nice in 2004, Legion divers were ordered into the city's subterranean sewers to help provide security.
Legionnaires serve in Afghanistan, Chad and Ivory Coast with regular French military forces. They were deployed with U.S. military forces in Somalia in 1992 and have been part of peacekeeping missions in Kosovo, Rwanda and Cambodia. They also took part in relief efforts in South Asia after the December 2004 tsunami.
When President Jacques Chirac volunteered to send French troops to help rebuild Lebanon last summer after the war between Israel and Hezbollah, Legion engineers were the first to reconstruct destroyed bridges.
Created in 1831 as a way of absorbing European refugees who had flooded the country after the revolutions of 1830, the Legion has long prided itself on being the first French unit into conflict zones. "Having a force with a lot of single men and a lot of foreign people makes it easier to deal with politically," Champfleury said. "You don't have the widows and orphans."
In the course of its history, 35,000 Legionnaires have been killed in battle or during service to the organization.
Though its missions and makeup have shifted over the decades, much of the Legion's mystique persists.
It advertises itself as "the school of the second chance" for the man -- it does not admit women -- who is fleeing anything from a broken heart to social upheaval. The typical profile of a recruit, according to Lt. Gregory Gavroy, a spokesman, is "unstable, fragile, someone who is changing countries, has lost his roots, is looking for a new life" -- hardly attributes most employers seek.
Recruits are required to sign up for a five-year stint and must give up their real names and choose new ones. Samual, for instance, chose Gandolf -- for Gandalf, his favorite character in "The Lord of the Rings" -- as his new first name.
The 18 percent of recruits who are French-born must surrender their passports and are given new documents listing them as residents of other French-speaking countries. It is after all, the French Foreign Legion.
However, entry into the Legion does not earn foreign members an automatic French passport unless they are injured while serving.
Like most militaries these days, the Legion offers a variety of job specialties from sniper and diver to paratrooper, cook and bricklayer. It also has a band and a team of marathon runners that tours the globe. However, all Legionnaires must be proficient with a weapon and remain combat-ready.
All of them must also learn to iron their 13-crease dress shirts, a feat that can take first-timers three to four hours to perform.
Though the Legion no longer accepts recruits with serious criminal records -- stealing a chicken is okay, anything much bigger is not -- it is fiercely protective of its members.
"The Legionnaire is seldom an angel, but never a criminal," boasts the Legion's Web site. At the same time, said 1st Lt. Renaud Bellat, who instructs recruits at Bel-Air Farm, "We have no room for Rambos here."
But the Legion is no place for wimps, either.
Just before lunch on a recent drizzly spring day, the drill sergeants ordered an "aperitif" for the newest recruits, a little something to stimulate the taste buds.
A line of eight recruits, stripped to the waist, dropped to their hands and knees in the wet, flower-spangled grass for push-ups -- with a massive railroad tie balanced atop their bare backs.
Next came sit-ups, with the tree-size piece of timber laid across their stomachs.
"Do you hurt?" shouted the drill instructors.
"No, Sergeant! I feel good!" the recruits roared in a single hoarse voice, faces contorted.
"You can never know what it's like until you're here," said Samual, who has earned the famous white hat, called the kepi blanc, that marks the promotion from recruit to Legionnaire. "There were moments when I wanted to die. But never to go back."
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.