Though the French Foreign Legion still cherishes its tradition, the corps’ glory fades
The clock winds down on a legend
Though the French Foreign Legion still cherishes its tradition, the corps’ glory fades
The green iron gates are swung open in an embrace that seems all too benign. Beyond, flower beds preen beneath the Mediterranean glare with the obsessive manicuring worthy of a two-page spread in some gardening glossy. To the casual passer-by happening on this grassy plateau above the industrial suburbs of Aubagne, 20-minutes east of the Mediterranean port city of Marseilles, the architecture of the placid white pavilions might call to mind some cross between rest home and resort, not a century and a half of blood and legend. Still, it is the blood and legend men come for. The blood and legend and the sweet deal that remains as timelessly simple as it is exorbitant: all a man has to do is check his past at the door, or on the far side of the green iron gates, and the French Foreign Legion will forge a new life for him.
New names are dispensed with the standard-issue khaki as soon as the five-year contract is signed. Indentities are rearranged with a swiftness largely made possible by the fact that nobody cares to delve too deeply into documentation. Creditors, paternity suit servers and the police are likely to find their inquiries greeted with the reply that
the culprit is not listed on official records—a creative kind of truth in itself. Barring certain excesses, among them homicide, the Foreign Legion offers a man the sort of haven his mother might refuse him—a second chance that even the human potential movement’s most inspired pitchmen would have difficulty topping: redemption at more than $200a-month starting pay.
If that deal is at bottom as deceptive as its headquarters’ landscaped blandness, it is nevertheless one that has remained the siren song drawing drifters and dreamers and those on the lam from almost anything, even if only from themselves, ever since King Louis-Philippe decided to conscript a brigade of foreign muscle for his Algerian campaigns in 1831. This year, as the Légion Etrangère celebrates its 150th anniversary with extended pomp and press clippings, its lure remains so bright that it can still boast of turning away three out of every four recruits who apply. But beyond the birthday-candle glow, the year has also brought the corps a future of distinctly hazier shading.
With the socialists’ electoral triumph this past spring, the legion suddenly woke up to find its new boss was Defence Minister Charles Hernu who, as opposi-
tion critic, only last year called for its disbandment. Nor did the swift installation of Communist cabinet ministers provide reason for jubilation. It was the French Communist Party, after all, which last year set a motion before the National Assembly to abolish what it described as “an instrument of colonial conquest and repression of the people.” That measure was easily trounced, but
it is no secret that, unlike his predecessors, President François Mitterrand takes a dim view of the sort of emergency bicep-flexing in former African colonies that justifies the legion’s crack rapid-intervention paratroop regiment and accounted for its last fling with glory—a quick swoop into Zaire’s bloodied Shaba province in 1978 to beat off Katangan rebels terrorizing the European population in Kolwezi. This past summer, when the Central African Republic’s army decided to take things into its own hands, the troop of legionnaires who had been posted there ever since
Emperor Jean Bokassa’s hasty Frenchabetted departure in 1979, was ordered to sit this one out on the sidelines of its barracks.
Critics in recent years have come to decry the legion as an outmoded reminder of a lost empire that has metamorphosed into nothing more than a mercenary band. Even the sacred covenant of anonymity has been attacked as a haven for criminals and social misfits since 1976, when the legion was forced to move its basic training camp from Corsica rather rapidly after disenchanted new recruits took off without
leave, doing away with two local shepherds and a German tourist in their flight. Despite the fact that the corps has a significant French lobby and enough tradition not to feel threatened, such criticism may explain why, when a visitor arrives at Aubagne these days, care is taken to keep a discreet publicrelations-type profile. While there, new recruits being run through a battery of physical and psychological tests to weed out the chaff from legionnaire potential are all kept far from sight, leaving the impression of some vast abandoned parade ground (basic training camp, transplanted to Castelnaudary in France’s remote southwest, has been declared off limits to journalists).
As keeper of the flame, custodian of the legion museum Sgt. Maj. Tibor Szecsko leads a tour through the showcase of the legend. In the hushed light of a marble crypt, he pulls himself to attention with a click of the heels for one minute’s silence before a small lofty glass box. “That,” he nods to the burnished wooden hand inside, “is our relic.” Retrieved from the battle site of Camerone, Mexico, the artificial member in question once belonged to Capt. Jean Danjou, who, after holding off 3,000 Mexicans with his force of 62 for an entire day in April, 1863, took his last four survivors and charged with bayonets drawn—an event venerated as the legion’s quintessence. Recruits under the misapprehension that their escape from society has been without strings quickly learn that, subject to the French government’s whims, they too will be expected to “faire Camerone.” Suggestions that the legion is founded on a suicidal philosophy, however, turn Szecsko white with rage. “Camerone wasn’t a defeat,” he corrects. “It wasn’t perhaps a complete victory, but it was a mission accomplished.”
A ground-floor museum display recounts how the trade mark white pill box, the képi blanc, was originally a white cotton dust cover for hats in the desert until a commander during the Moroccan campaigns ordered his men to take them off because too many were attracting bullets in the head; the next morning they showed up defiantly, still sporting white. The anecdote doesn’t exactly fit in with the notion of iron discipline, but seems to have been forgiven for its pure machismo.
Along with tales of sentries on guard duty being given grenades with pins pulled to discourage nodding off and the killer three-day forced march at the end of boot camp, the legion has become thestuff of myth and screenplay. These days, with its numbers shrunk to 8,000—one-fifth of its peak strength during the French Indo-Chinese war of the ’40s and ’50s—a recruit is less likely to face battle lines than to find himself
fighting forest fires on the French Riviera or wading waist-deep in a Central American swamp, hacking roads out of the rain forest of French Guyana. One engineering regiment does nothing but build infrastructure on the atolls a few hundred kilometres beyond Tahiti for France’s atomic bomb testing program; another infantry post collects hardship pay for sitting it out between the Ethiopians and Somalians in Djibouti, keeping an eye on the Gulf of Aden. Even the essence of the Foreign Legion has changed, as a recent French National Assembly report attests: once a
harbor for the driftwood from Europe’s political storms—Russians on the run from the Bolshevik revolution,Spaniards from the civil war, Hungarians bolting after the 1956 uprising, and even a preponderance of post-war Germans who, some believe, had reason to flee the Nuremberg trials—it now consists of more than 50 per cent Frenchmen. “When one is in the Foreign Legion, of course, we’re all foreigners, whether we’re French or not,” says Gen. Paul Lardry. Accordingly, a homegrown recruit is advised to list himself as Belgian or Québécois—a practice that makes for considerable confusion when a reporter requests to interview a Canadian. Puzzles one officer: “We’ve got hundreds of Canadians here who’ve never seen the country.” When one is found, however, he seems entirely representative of the new breed of legionnaire.
Chief Cpl. Noel Sisterson, a 14-year veteran whose Winnipeg, Man., upbringing didn’t leave him with a taste for the nine-to-five life, found the legion after a four-year hitch in the U.S. army and a drift through Europe on a wave of odd jobs, when he sighted a recruiting poster outside a Paris police station. “I had nothin’ better to do,” he says. “I was lookin’ for action, and I got it.” As a paratrooper with the legion’s elite Second Regiment in Calvi, Corsica, he was dropped into the civil unpleasantness in Chad in 1969, and has since seen tours from Madagascar to the South Pacific.
If Gen. Lardry notes an increasing number of recruits seeking something sure and rigid against a society that has become too flaccid for them, Chief Cpl. Sisterson can only agree. “It was hard— the hardest I ever knew,” he says. “But it’s supposed to be hard. It makes a man outa you.” Now at 40, “busted up too much” to continue parachuting, he claims “sort of a cushy job, workin’ in the office, carryin’ papers around,” waiting for the end of his third fiveyear stint next year and his modest pension. It may not be precisely the outlook of the onetime man of action, but along the way he has acquired a wife and
child. Though recruits must be bachelors—or at least must say they are— and can only marry at a certain rank, the legion now has begun adding married quarters to its posts. For the wounded or those who can never quite make the adjustment to civilian norms, it looks after its own with rest homes in the hills outside Aix-en-Provence, where old soldiers turn out souvenir pottery képi blanc ashtrays and tend the vines of the legion’s exclusive “chateau,” which produces a rosé served up in the officers’ mess as “Réserve Légion Etrangère.”
Unlike 20 per cent of the current-day recruits, Sisterson came seeking arms and adventure. But 80 per cent are still running from something more serious, according to the National Assembly report and, embarrassingly, the majority running from the law turn out to be Frenchmen. If most recruits arrive “somewhat unstable,” as Col. Jean Mayer, a former personnel chief puts it, he insists that the legion’s particular grilling methods weed out the misfits. After all, the legion doesn’t want their uncertain hands on some of the French army’s most sophisticated weaponry.
Which is not to say it won’t wink at what he calls “a few peccadillos.” “The legion doesn’t mind as long as the recruit didn’t lose his dignity as a man,” says Lardry. Rape, murder and habitual break-and-entry offences are disqualifies. “But if he may have stolen a car, passed a few bad cheques, we don’t consider he lost his manly dignity.”
After three years a legionnaire is offered his own identity back and what is known as a “rectification” of his civil state. The legion will help him pay off bad debts or give him time off without pay to serve unfinished prison business, even pave the way for French citizenship papers and proffer career counselling. “It permits us to put back into civilian life people who have nothing to reproach themselves for,” says Mayer. “It’s a way of remaking a life while waiting for an amnesty.”
But the deal is not all one-sided. In return, the legion gets a psychological hook—the possibility to shape a new identity into its mould, the demand for undying loyalty that can only be exacted from a man who has cut all ties, with country as well as with personal background. Should he forget it, the motto is enscribed in wall-high concrete at the end of the parade ground: Legio
Patria Nostra—the legion is our homeland. It is such a potent hook that some legionnaires never succeed in fleeing it, and months after their long-dreamedof decampment, come straggling back. “I don’t know if I can do it,” worries Sisterson of his end-of-duty next year. “I’ve never been a civilian. You just wonder if you can make it oüt there.”
“Once a legionnaire, always a legionnaire,” growls Lardry proudly, “even in civilian life.” A veteran of the Indo-Chinese war with a wicked foot-long forearm gash to bear witness, he waxes poetic about those times under fear and fire which make up “the privileged moments in the life of a man.” He spurns suggestions of a threat to the legion’s future even if, as commander of France’s new elite rapid-intervention brigade, he may not have too much rapid intervening to do for a while. “The legion will survive,” he says, flexing his scar, “if not in this form, in another.” This same spirit pervades an inky back street of Marseilles where, at Chez Lola, legionnaires have traditionally gathered to top each others’ braggadocio. Lola, the aging proprietress of indeterminate Oriental origin, also seems to have joined her fortunes with that of the legion by turning her bar into their shrine.
But business isn’t quite what it used to be, nor are the legionnaires. One recent Friday night, Lola found herself becalmed among the flags and red-fringed epaulets, the bar hung with battle memorabilia and the door framed with stained-glass legionnaires. Still, she did not consider deserting her post. Clad in her most dazzling black and gold caftan, dark glasses and cigarette holder at hand, she was on alert as always. “I’ve known the legionnaires for years,” she said wistfully as she stalked the bar. “The glory isn’t the same as it used to be.” Nevertheless, like the legion itself, Lola has declared herself prepared for whatever might come to her. 0
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.