The French Foreign Legion

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Podcast Transcript

A popular topic of films has been the French Foreign Legion. 

The French Foreign Legion was supposed to be an organization where someone could get a new identity and a new start on life, even if they were criminals. 

They were often stationed in hot, desolate places, where they served out their tour of duty before starting a new life. 

But how much of the legend surrounding the French Foreign Legion story is really true??

Learn more about the French Foreign Legion, how it was formed and how it works on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

The French Foreign Legion has developed an almost mythical status in TV and movies. According to the legend, the French Foreign Legion would take anyone to become a member regardless of their past or what they might have done. 

In return, the legion would give the recruit a new identity, allowing them to get a new start on life free whatever mistakes or baggage in their previous life. 

Unlike many episodes where I debunk common misconceptions about something, as we’ll see, much of the legend surrounding the French Foreign Legion is actually true. 

The story of the founding of the French Foreign Legion dates back to the early 19th century. 

Following the French Revolution and the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, the Bourbon monarchy was re-established in 1815. That only lasted for fifteen years until the July Revolution in 1830, which led to the overthrow of King Charles X, the French Bourbon monarch, who was replaced by his cousin, Louis Philippe, Duke of Orléans.

The now King Louis Philippe inherited a mess. France was beset by economic difficulties, including high unemployment and social unrest. 

In addition to what was happening at home, France needed to solidify control over its expanding colonial empire. In particular, France had landed 34,000 troops in Algeria on June 14, 1830, just weeks before the July Revolution. 

The Algerian occupation, which began under King Charles, was highly unpopular back in France.

Louis Philippe also had to deal with another problem: France had a large and growing number of foreign soldiers in the country. 

During the Napoleonic Wars and the Bourbon Restoration, France hired foreign soldiers. This wasn’t unusual. Almost every country hired mercenaries to fight its wars, usually in part but sometimes in full. In fact, the practice of hiring foreigners to fight dates back thousands of years. 

For example, in a previous episode, I discussed Swiss Mercenaries, who were some of the most feared fighters on the continent.

In addition to the foreign soldiers France had previously used, a flood of foreigners came to France after the July Revolution. Some of these were radical revolutionaries who came to France after the failure of revolutions in their own country. Many of them were people with no money and extensive military training. 

The foreigners in France were becoming a burden on the state and an enormous potential risk. 

The solution to the domestic problem of too many foreigners, as well as the problem of trying to occupy Algeria, was proposed by Minister of War Nicolas Jean-de-Dieu Soult. 

On March 10, 1831, King Louis-Philippe signed a royal ordinance establishing the French Foreign Legion. The key motivations were to create a disciplined and cohesive fighting force from the various foreign volunteers and to relieve domestic social pressures by offering employment to foreigners.

The French Foreign Legion had two major founding principles. The first was that the unit would consist only of non-French soldiers, and the second was that they could only serve outside of France. 

This solution solved the problem of too many foreign soldiers in France and the problem of finding soldiers to serve in Algeria, which needed reinforcements. 

The Foreign Legion’s initial organization was a single regiment of seven battalions, each consisting of soldiers from a single country. This included battalions of Swiss, Germans, Italians, Spanish, Belgians, and Dutch.

They had troubles in the first months the legion was formed, which was not surprising given the heterogeneity of the units. Still, they quickly coalesced and developed a reputation for bravery and discipline. 

They saw their first major action in April 1832 at the Battle of Maison Carrée outside Algiers. 

They eventually established their headquarters in the town of Sidi Bel Abbes, about 375 kilometers southwest of Algiers, which was their base until 1962. 

The legion was used extensively over the next century…and I do mean extensively. I couldn’t possibly even cover all of the places around the world that French Foreign Legion was deployed given the time limits of this podcast. 

In addition to Algeria, in the decades after its creation, the legion was deployed in Spain, Crimea, Italy, Mexico, and Southeast Asia. They fought in the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 and all over Africa in all the French African colonies. 

The reason why the legion was used so often is simply because they were considered to be more expendable than the regular French Army. There was no public outcry when members of the Foreign Legion were killed. 

Since its founding, there have been over 35,000 legionnaires that have been killed. 

In the 20th century, use of the legionnaires did not cease. 

When the First World War began in 1914, many foreign nationals living in France volunteered to serve in the military. However, the only option for them was to join the Foreign Legion. On August 3, 1914, 8,000 foreign nationals appeared at Foreign Legion recruiting offices in France. 

Members of the Foreign Legion served with distinction in almost every major battle that France took part in during the war. 

In the Second World War, the loyalties of the Foreign Legion were split between Vichy France, which was a Nazi puppet regime, and that of the Free French movement, led by Charles de Gaul. 

One of the legion’s notable features is that the country of origin of its recruits always changes over time. After the Franco-Prussian War, Prussia occupied the Alsace-Loraine region between the two countries. After that, many people from that area joined the Foreign Legion. 

After the Second World War, the legion received a flood of recruits from, of all places, Germany. Most of them were former members of the German Army. They had spent years in the Army, and now that the war was over, they felt they had no more opportunities in Germany. 

The Foreign Legion did have a policy of not accepting former members of the SS, and they would look for relevant tattoos or scars that indicated removal.

The post-war world didn’t see the Foreign Legion lose any relevance. In almost every conflict Frace fought in, the Foreign Legion was there. They fought in the First Indochina War from 1946 to 1954. They saw huge losses at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu.

They fought for the French in the Algerian War of Independence and eventually had to give up their headquarters in Algeria when it became independent. 

In the last few decades, they have been used as peacekeepers all over the world and have fought in the First Iraq War, the Bosnian War, Afghanistan, the Ivory Coast, Mali, and many other places. 

Currently, there are about 8,000 members of the French Foreign Legion around the world. 

But what about all those stories about the French Foreign Legion accepting anyone, even those guilty of a crime? Do they really give you a new identity? What does it take to join the French Foreign Legion?

For starters, you have to apply to the French Foreign Legion in person in France. There are no satellite recruitment offices anywhere else in the world. That means you have to get yourself to France and take care of any visas required to enter the country. 

The French Foreign Legion recruitment centers are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, however, they do recommend that you show up during normal business hours. 

Before you even begin the process, you have to be a male between the ages of 17.5 and 39.5 years old. Women are not allowed in the legion. 

You can be married and have children, but it is not encouraged. 

In the past, you could enlist under an alias, but they really had no way of checking. Today, however, you have to enlist under your legal name initially. You must have a passport and a birth certificate. 

As far as having a criminal record goes, in years past, they would have accepted anyone. In theory, they had a don’t ask, don’t tell policy regarding serious crimes such as murder. 

Today, they can check the background of a recruit. They are a bit vague, saying that they will not accept anyone with a “serious crime” and that you can’t be wanted by INTERPOL. 

However, they will probably turn a blind eye to lesser crimes. If you are on the run for robbery, tax evasion, or other crimes, they will probably accept you. 

Likewise, if you are AWOL from another army, you will likewise probably be accepted. 

You must have a Body Mass Index between 20 and 30, and you have to be physically fit. 

Knowledge of French is not a requirement, but you must be able to read and write in your native language. 

If you pass all the requirements, you will be presented with a five-year service contract that is non-negotiable. 

Once you sign your contract, your personal possessions are taken and stored, and you are given a new identity. 

Everyone is given a new identity, even if you don’t want to get rid of your real name. More on that in a bit.

The recruitment center has a series of tests that last several days. At any point, the process can end, and you can be expelled. 

Assuming you pass everything, they have a four-month training program that you must go through. 

After all of that, recruits take their oath and deliver their contract in the hall of honor of the French Foreign Legion Museum in Aubagne, France.  After that they are then allowed to wear the distinctive white kepi hat which is part of the uniform of the order

The legionnaire has a bank account set up with their new identity where their pay is sent. A new recruit will be paid about €1400 per month, and all of their food, clothing, shelter, and medical expenses are covered. There are salary bonuses if you have difficult or dangerous assignments.

You also get 45 days off per year, which is very generous.

After a year, every legionnaire has to make a choice. They can keep their new identity or revert back to their old one. This is called rectification. 80% of all legionaries choose to get their old names back. 

Those who choose to go back to their real name will have the option, after three years is up, to apply for French citizenship. However, there is an even faster way to obtain citizenship. The way you do it is by being injured in combat.

All legionaries have to undergo daily French language instruction. 

Today, the largest source of recruits for the legion is Eastern Europe and South America.

The French Foreign Legion has proven so successful that several countries have outright copied the idea. Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Russia have all, at one time or another, had special units of foreign soldiers. 

Many more countries allow foreign citizens to join their armies directly, eliminating the need for a dedicated foreign unit. There has been talk of creating an American Foreign Legion, but nothing has ever come from it. 

The French Foreign Legion has a storied history marked by its role in major conflicts, its unique composition of foreign volunteers, and its enduring mystique. People join the Legion for various reasons, including the promise of a new beginning, the allure of adventure, and the opportunity for personal and professional transformation. 

After almost 200 years, the  Legion’s legacy continues to be shaped by its diverse and dedicated members who come from all corners of the globe.