Few French Regret the Farewell to Arms

By Mary Dejevsky and Joanna Lee | The Independent (London, England), February 24, 1996 | Go to article overview
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Few French Regret the Farewell to Arms

Mary Dejevsky and Joanna Lee, The Independent (London, England)




Within hours of appearing on television to announce the end of conscription, President Jacques Chirac moved to nip in the bud any dissent from within the military establishment. Addressing more than 500 military staff officers at the military academy in Paris yesterday, Mr Chirac said in the definite tones that soldiers would understand that he "expected" their unfailing adherence to the work of rebuilding France's national defence".

He understood their "legitimate concerns, questions and emotions" at the impending reforms but: "you must understand that there is not and never has been any immutable model for French defence. Military service has been compulsory for less than a century. Realism requires that our armed forces should now be professional".

The President's decision to abolish conscription over a period of six years does away with a rite of passage for young Frenchmen that has existed since the Revolution, even though obligatory national service was enshrined in law only in 1905. As recently as 1993, an opinion poll showed more than 60 per cent of French people asked said they feared the abolition of conscription could jeopardise national security. A poll conducted this month, however, showed more than 70 per cent of those asked favoured ending the practice, and on the streets and in offices yesterday the response to Mr Chirac's announcement was generally positive.

Among people who completed their 10-month stint of national service in the last few years or were contemplating the prospect, there was almost universal approval, tempered by a slight sense that something hard to define - mixing with people from other backgrounds, a formative experience, a process that fostered national or social cohesion - might none the less be lost.

Franz, aged 26, now an engineer, spent his 10 months in Berlin. "I found it very useful, met people from all walks of life and learnt much more about the real France." There were "pluses and minuses" about abolishing conscription, he said.

Patrick, who spent his year in the French city of Valance assigning and collecting uniforms and is now a computer manager, said he was in tears for his first week and hated most of his time. He thought it was "useless" as a form of military training - "I only fired a rifle twice" - but, in retrospect, useful for learning how to get on with people and instilling patriotism.

Christophe, now 32 and an accountancy adviser, was adamant: "Abolition is absolutely right." Quiet and reserved, he had been keen to avoid military service: "I just wasn't cut out for it and thought I would get very depressed." After the preliminary three-day induction period, which involves medical and psychological examinations and preliminary training exercises, he found himself signed off as unsuitable.

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