The Foreign Legion - a French Legend

By Robert Korengold  
They are, without any doubt, year after year, the most awaited and most applauded part of France's annual 14th of July Bastille Day military parade down the Champs Elysées. If you're anywhere in France on the day, watch for them. No matter what kind or how many or how imposing the ever bigger tanks and ever more sophisticated rockets rumbling by, it's the soldiers of the legendary French Foreign Legion that everyone wants to see.

The best viewing place, obviously, is from a spot on the parade's sidelines in Paris. If that's not possible, however, they'll still be the focus of television coverage throughout the nation. They are instantly identifiable in the military marching order not only by their slow, deliberate cadenced 88-paces-a-minute marching rhythm, abruptly different from the quick; synchronized 120 paces-a-minute of other parade participants, but also by their white képis, green and red epaulettes and rolled up sleeves.

If that isn't enough, you can hardly miss noticing their specialized engineer units, the Sapeurs or "Pioneers" as they also are known, all sporting fulsome and obligatory beards, leather aprons and axes carried like rifles to recall their original role as advance trail breakers for their Légionnaire colleagues.

No military unit anywhere, with the possible exception of the U.S. Marines, has been so romanticized and eulogized in literature and song, films and fantasy as the debonair Légionnaires. And for good reason. They are, by any standard, the elite of the French armed forces, almost invariably the first to be sent, or often parachuted these days, into trouble spots around the world where French interests or French citizens are deemed to be in danger.

Most often that involves frequently tumult-beset former French African colonies but the Légionnaires, some 8,500 strong, usually also are the units of choice for other combat or peacekeeping missions in places, such as Afghanistan, Bosnia or Kosovo, as part of international military forces helping to stabilize war-torn regions.

Although nowadays they look, dress and operate much as modern-day military forces do anywhere, it's their aura of mystery, romance and adventure that set them apart. Rare are the young men in France, or, for that matter, many other countries, who have not fantasized at one moment or another about leaving it all behind and running away to join the French Foreign Legion.

Few, also, are the adults today who don't recall one or another of the string of memorable films about the Légion with such famous stars as Gary Cooper, Ronald Colman, William Powell, Jean Gabin or, for more recent generations, Jean-Claude Van-Damme. And what fan of famed French singer Edith Piaf hasn't been stirred by her soulful and melancholy rendition of one of her trademark songs, "Mon Légionnaire?"

For the English-speaking world, of course, the benchmark is British author P.C. Wren's 1926 novel "Beau Geste," the story of three brothers who abandon their comfortable English aristocratic background to serve--and, for two of them, find death--as Légionnaires in the burning sands of the Sahara desert. In various makes and remakes of what has become a classic movie as well as a classic novel, Colman and Cooper successively had the main hero's role of Beau Geste, a play on words that in French means "Gallant Gesture."

While today's camouflage-khaki-clad Légionnaires utilize the whole panoply of modern weaponry from machine guns and bazookas to tanks, helicopters and transport planes, in Beau Geste's day, they essentially had only their rifles as fighting tools, and they wore white trousers and black swallow-tail coats, almost as if they were going to a white-tie ball. Their white képis all were fitted in the back with cloth shields to protect their necks from the burning sun of the deserts, which they traversed on foot, not in tanks or motorized personnel carriers. The képi remains such a Légion symbol as a headgear that the right to wear it is accorded, with much ceremony, only after successful completion of a more than 30-mile march after at least a month of training.

Formed in 1831 to pacify the natives of what is now Algeria but was then France's Algerian colony, the Légion won much of its fame as a "no-questions-asked" haven for men from all nations who might have something to hide or hide from. Often that has meant the law, but the motivations also range from a desire to escape from family problems, national turmoil, oppressive regimes in the candidates' home countries or a life that wasn't fulfilling a prospective Légionnaire's yen for adventure.

Whatever the reasons, the Légion makes it a point, within limits, not to pry and not to care. Some identity documents are required at the start and there is a security background check on prospective recruits who can sign up initially at any one of 16 recruiting centers around France, all open 365 days a year. Signing up doesn't guarantee a career in the Légion however. First a candidate, who must be between 18 and 40 years old, has to undergo and pass a rigorous medical and three-week interview and physical training program at the Legion's headquarters in Aubagne, just east of Marseilles. During that time he will be not be allowed to write or phone anyone in the outside world.

More basic training follows at Castelnaudary, 30 miles southeast of Toulouse and a candidate remains on probation for a good six months. If during that time he fails the rigorous physical or mental entrance and probationary requirements, he'll have to finance his own way home. The Legion won't get involved.

Although the days of total "no-questions-asked," no longer prevail, the Légion generally will overlook a minor criminal history but not necessarily a major one and each case is decided on its merits. French language ability is not required even though all day to day commands and communication is in French. While many of its enlistees, drawn literally from all over the world, have only rudimentary or almost no French language skill to start, most pick up enough within a year to survive the Légion's exhaustive requirements. Women and married men are not accepted in the ranks but nationality doesn't matter. In fact, the Légion's trademark is its openness to recruits from any country.

What matters essentially is not where a potential Légionnaire comes from or what he's done or chooses to call himself. No barrier is posed to enlistment under an assumed name if that is desired. What counts is the commitment to serve France honorably and faithfully for an initial contract period of at least five years. Once the entrance bar and probationary period has been cleared, however, three years of loyal and satisfactory service opens the door to a favorably viewed application for French citizenship or, if preferred, a 10-year French residence permit. Life in the Légion is tough, however. Personal moral codes, as might be suspected, are not necessarily of the highest. Theft is endemic and desertions by those who can't support the rigors of Légion life remain frequent.

On the more positive side, the Légion has a well-earned reputation for iron-clad comradeship among its members regardless of their race, religion or national origins and for forging fearsome fighting units that have proved their mettle in battles from Mexico to Vietnam and from Africa to the Crimea. In Vietnam, Légionnaires were among the last resisting forces in the embattled fortress of Dien Bien Phu in 1945. And their emblems consistently bear the name of Camerone, the Alamo-style battle in Mexico in 1863 where a beseiged force of three Légionnaire officers and 62 soldiers heroically held off a 2,000-man Mexican army. At the end, the last five surviving Légionnaires perished in style. They fixed their bayonets and, with characteristic panache, charged the enemy forces.

Talk about adventure! If that kind of soldier isn't worth watching, who is?

by Robert Korengold




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