Stupid Question ™
June 14, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: How do I join the French Foreign Legion? Is it true I get a new identity and pardon for all my past crimes?
—West Side Berserker
A: The Legion Etrangere is a French mercenary army founded in 1831 as a way to turn friendly foreigners into cannon fodder. More than 30,000 have died in combat.
The Legion’s first mission was to conquer Algeria, and for more than 100 years it was stationed in the Algerian desert, earning a reputation for “March or Die” brutality. Then in 1961, one Legion regiment decided to fight for the Algerians. The Legion HQ was quickly transferred to southern France.
Today, it mostly conducts peacekeeping missions in Africa and Eastern Europe. It also has permanent outposts in the Djiboutian desert and the jungles of French Guiana.
The Legion accepts men (no women) of any nationality, race or religion. About 50 percent of the 8,000 troops are, ironically, French, but about 140 countries are represented in the ranks.
If you’re between 17 and 40 years old, don’t wear glasses and aren’t happily married, then you’re qualified. If you call any of the 16 recruiting centers in France and sound serious enough, they’ll send you a letter with full details. (Ring the HQ at Aubagne at 011-33-04-42-18-82-57.)
But to actually get in, you have to show up in person. Easiest way is to fly to Paris and take the Metro to the Chateau de Vincennes stop. From there, take a taxi to the Fort de Nogent at 94120 Fontenay-sous-Bois. Then simply hand over your passport and sign away the next five years of your life. All recruiting centers are open 365 days a year.
But getting in is tough. Only about one in seven candidates makes it. And being in is even tougher. The training is grueling and desertion is common. Camp brothels are the main entertainment. Basic pay is about 5,500 francs ($710) a month, often double that for hazard duty.
The French Embassy frankly admits that the average Legionnaire “has come to the Legion to escape his past,” and there is an anonymity policy (the anonymat). When you join, all your ID papers are confiscated, and you’re issued a military ID in any name you want. Whether real or false, this is your “Legion name” and it’s all anyone knows you by.
One ex-Legionnaire told me, “Essentially if you joined the Legion you would become a ‘missing person.’ Anyone tracing your civilian name would draw a blank because that name has essentially been put to sleep.”
The catch: Your military ID isn’t good for much in the real world. The Legion even controls your bank account. And when you leave the Legion, you get your old ID back in a bureaucratic process known as “rectification.”
The Legion doesn’t pardon crimes, doesn’t harbor international fugitives and doesn’t take drug offenders. But a rap sheet may be OK if you’re otherwise a good candidate. Ex-Legionnaires report that theft and hashish use are rampant in the Legion ranks.