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Is France really bringing back national service for teenagers?

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Is France really bringing back national service for teenagers?
Teenagers on national service will wear navy uniforms. Photo: AFP
14:51 CEST+02:00
This week marks the beginning of a new trial period for national service in France - but it's a long way from shaven-headed teenage military conscripts.

What is happening?

Around 2,000 French teenagers are now piloting the month-long Service national universel (SNU) scheme which is set to be rolled out across France in the coming years as a compulsory part of life for 15 and 16 year-olds.

Emmanuel Macron unveiled the idea while on the campaign trail in 2017. Photo: AFP

Is it really national service?

Well sort of, but it's not the same as military service. France scrapped compulsory military service in 1997 and teenagers will be relieved to learn that they're not expected to do 10 months of square-bashing, boot polishing and cross country runs on this new scheme.

Instead, this new national service is more civil based. It's the brainchild of French president Emmanuel Macron, who surprised many people when he announced it on the campaign trial in the run-up to the 2017 presidential election.

He said he would introduce a month-long compulsory national service, saying he wanted to give girls and boys "a direct experience of military life".

The proposal got a cool response from the army, which balked at the prospect of having to put millions of teens through their paces, prompting the government to come back with proposals for a compulsory civic service instead.

So what will the teenagers be doing if they're not playing with guns?

They will basically be learning useful skills and doing some community engagement. The trial cohort of 2,000 teenagers - who were chosen from among 4,000 volunteers - will leave home for another region for the two weeks, during which time they will be required to wear navy uniforms and sing the Marseillaise, France's national anthem, every morning.

Described as an "integration phase", the teens will be taught first aid, map reading, and other skills.

A second two-week phase, later this summer or during the coming school year, involves work on a "collective project", such as volunteering with a charity or local government.

Macron has billed the service as a way to develop patriotism and social cohesion in a country battling deep divisions between left and right, rich and poor, and religious and non-religious.

So is it compulsory?

It's not now, the teenagers doing it this summer are all volunteers, but Macron intends that the programme will be written into the constitution, and will be rolled out over the next seven years, targeting about 800,000 youngsters per year, eventually becoming compulsory.

France already requires all citizens to participate in a one-day "Defence and Citizenship" course when they turn 18, which includes a presentation of the country's military forces and a French language test.

Macron himself is the first French president not to have been called up to serve, having come of age after the compulsory 10 months of military service for school-leaving men was abolished by ex-president Jacques Chirac in 1997, with the last conscripts discharged in 2001.

Still it could be worse, if you're a teenager in North Korea you face 11 years of compulsory military service if you are a man, and seven if you are a woman - the world's longest national service.

Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Austria and Greece still have compulsory military service.

The last time men were called to duty through conscription in the UK was in 1960 while in the US it was in 1973.

 
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FrancoLion - 17 Jun 2019 18:30
All democratic countries should require a YEAR of paid compulsory national service, which would NOT include an "internship" in an haute couture fashion house for children of the sociopathologically rich!
Rupert - 27 Jun 2019 18:24
The two year national service put discipline and service into a lot of would be hooligans. It might also deter our islamic brethren from joining. Swearing allegiance to their adopted country might be against their religion. I assume this includes young women. No place for burkas and hijabs when square bashing at 6am. Bring it on.
Bella - 07 Jul 2019 21:25
I think it is a good idea. It may just teach them some respect for those protecting the country.
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