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FRENCH HISTORY

Everything you need to know about the French Foreign Legion

Probably one of the most famous army units in the world, the French Foreign Legion is still going strong almost 200 years after its foundation, and is now recruiting.

Everything you need to know about the French Foreign Legion
A member of the French Foreign Legion with a tattoo of the regimental motto Marche ou Creve (march or die). Photo by Thomas SAMSON / AFP

The Legion has a fearsome reputation, partly due to its famously brutal training and also because of its reputation over the years as the place that dodgy characters can run away to, in order to escape a shady past or forget about a doomed love affair.

And the modern Legion seems to enjoy this reputation, as evidenced by this advert playing on the theme of ‘join the legion to forget’ – the below tweet from the Legion’s official recruitment account makes reference to the Will Smith – Chris Rock punch-up at the Oscars and says: “Whether you are French or foreign, the Legion allows you to forget about yourself and helps you channel your energy into a profession of honour and commitment.”

If you’ve ever watched any major French military parades you will certainly have noticed the Pioneer unit of the Legion – they’re the ones who sport beards, white gloves and buffalo leather aprons and carry axes (the axes are for use on trees, not people).

Another way to spot a Legionnaire is to look out for anyone with a tattoo saying Marche ou Crève (march or die) – it’s the Legion motto and some recruits get it tattooed on their faces, just to make the point. 

Legion soldiers are often on the frontline of any military conflict and they also carry out domestic missions such as combating piracy and people smuggling around France.


The Pioneer corps of the Legion in their traditional garb. Photo: AFP

There obviously aren’t enough broken-hearted lovers and shady characters turning up in France any more, because the Legion now runs a near-permanent recruitment campaign, using all sorts of modern methods including social media.

During the lockdown, one of their fitness instructors ran online classes in an attempt to help confined French people stay in shape.

The Legion also heads to the beach in summer, and not to sunbathe.

“We recruit all year round. But in the summer, there are fewer candidates, so we go where the people are: the beaches,”  Warrant Officer Sang-Jin Lee told French newspaper Le Parisien.

And if you speak French, the Legion will be particularly keen to sign you up. Although their recruits come from across the world, the orders are all given in French.

Recruits get a crash course in basic military French, but officers want to increase the number of French speakers and people who have a knowledge of French culture and customs.

Should I sign up?

Well first you have to be a man – the Legion does not recruit women.

The starting salary is €1,380 (post-tax) and you get 45 days holiday a year once basic training at Castelnaudary in south west France is completed. If you serve five years or are injured on active service you can apply for French citizenship and there are also intensive French classes so it’s a good way to learn the language.

The selection process to get into the unit is three weeks long. You must be vaccinated against Covid to apply. You do not have to have gone to school or have any kind of academic diploma. 

Set against that, the training is intensive (some say brutal), the culture hyper-macho and if you do make it through the first six months, Legionnaires tend to be on the front line of most military conflicts, so it won’t be an easy service.

To get in top physical shape, the Legion recommends that you train prior to applying.

The Legion’s website reads: “This lifestyle corresponds to that of a single person.” 

Legionnaires are only allowed to get married if they have completed five years of military service and have informed their commander. They are required to wear their uniforms at all time – unless they obtain special permission. 

The Legion does have its own vineyard for veterans though. 

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FRANCE EXPLAINED

Can France’s Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

In the wake of the American Supreme Court's decision to end abortion rights for women in the US, French politicians from the centre and the left say they will move to have the right to terminate pregnancy enshrined in France's Constitution - so how easy is it to amend the Constitution in France?

Can France's Constitution be changed to add the right to abortion?

France’s first Constitution came into force in 1791, written by the French Revolutionaries and promising liberté, egalité and fraternité.

Those values are still very much in evidence in France today (in fact they’re carved into every public building) but in 1791 medicine involved bleeding, social networks meant gossiping with your neighbours over the wall and wigs made out of horsehair were very fashionable – in short, things change.

And the French constitution changes with them.

In fact, even talking about ‘the’ constitution is a little misleading, since France has had 15 different constitutions between the French Revolution of 1789 and the adoption of the current constitution in 1958 – the birth of the Fifth Republic.

Since 1958, there have also been 24 revisions to the constitution. Introducing it, then-President Charles du Gaulle said “the rest is a matter for men,” (we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he meant people, since women did have the vote by then) in other words, he envisaged that it would be revised when necessary.

So the short answer is that constitutional change in France is possible – and there is significant precedent for it – but there are several steps involved. 

What does it take to change the Constitution?

Changing the constitution in France requires Presidential approval, plus the approval of both houses of parliament (the Assemblée nationale and the Senate) and then the approval of the final text by a three-fifths majority of two parliaments.

The other option is a referendum, but only after the two assemblies have voted in favour.

In short, it needs to be an issue that has wide and cross-party support.

Articles 11 and 89 of the French constitution cover changes.

Article 11 allows for a constitutional referendum, which is a tool that is intended to give the people decisive power in legislative matters. A high-profile example of this is when former French President Charles de Gaulle employed Article 11 to to introduce the appointment of the president by direct universal suffrage in 1962, which modified then-Article 6 of the constitution. However, this method of changing the constitution is controversial, and can technically only be done for specific themes: the organisation of public authorities, economic and social reforms, or to ratify international treaties. Technically it does not require the referendum to first pass through parliament.

What did previous reforms cover?

Looking at the reforms in the last 60 years, the scope has been pretty wide.

The French Constitution was substantially amended to “take account of these new developments, needs, ideas, and values.” The goal of these amendments was to better “define and control the power of the executive, to increase the powers of Parliament, and to better assure the protection of fundamental rights.”

About 47 articles were amended or drafted, and some new provisions came into force immediately, such as the limitation to two consecutive presidential terms. 

Examples range from the 2000 Constitutional referendum where French people voted to shorten the presidential term from seven years to five years; the 2007 constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty, and several amendments to adapt the French constitution to make it compatible with EU treaties such as the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. 

Is a constitutional change more powerful than a law?

The most recent call for change – sparked by events in America – is to add the right to abortion into the constitution.

The right to abortion in France is protected by the “Veil law,” which was passed in 1975, so is there a benefit to adding it to the constitution as well?

Simply being a law does not give a definitive and irrevocable right to abortion in France and the law can be changed – parliament recently elongated the legal time limit for performing an abortion up to 14 weeks, which shows that under different circumstances lawmakers would be free to remove these provisions and chip away at the “Veil law.”

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What is the law on abortion in France?

If a majority of deputés agreed on a text banning abortion it could become law (although there are other procedural steps to pass through and such a decision would be challenged in the courts). Whereas, as outlined above, changing a constitutional right requires a much broader consensus from across the political spectrum.

In short, enshrining the right in the constitution would provide further protection for the right in the event of a future government that is anti-abortion – Marine Le Pen, who came second in the recent residential election has always been very vague on whether she supports the right to abortion, while many in her party are openly anti-abortion.

Why has France had so many constitutions?

The simple answer is that France’s many constitutions have reflected the shift between authoritarianism and republicanism throughout French history.

France is currently on its Fifth Republic, and its history since the French Revolution has also involved several periods of restoration of the monarchy and a brief period under an Emperor – all of these different regimes have required their own constitution.

READ MORE: Explained: What is the French Fifth Republic?

During the tumultuous revolutionary period, France had several constitutions, culminating in “Constitution of the Year XII,” which established the First French Empire. When the monarchy was restored, a new constitution codified the attempt to establish a constitutional monarchy.

France’s current constitution ushered in the Fifth Republic, largely at the behest of General Charles de Gaulle who was called to power during the May 1958 political crisis. One of the defining characteristics of the Fifth Republic is that it is a democracy, though the executive (the president) holds a significant amount of power.

So far, the Fifth Republic’s constitution has lasted 64 years, and should the Fifth Republic last until 2028, it will be the longest Republic – even longer than the Third Republic which endured from 1870 to 1940.

Could France have a new constitution in the future?

It is very possible. Former left-wing presidential candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon has proposed a Sixth Republic, which, according to France 24, would involve “proportional representation to make parliament more representative; giving citizens the power to initiate legislation and referendums, and to revoke their representatives; and scrapping special powers that currently give France’s executive right to pass legislation without parliamentary approval.” 

Mélenchon failed in his 2022 presidential bid however, so the Fifth Republic is still – for the moment – on course to beat that longevity record.

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