While most of the Legion’s commissioned officers are French, approximately 10% of them are former Legionnaires who have risen through the ranks. Though open to people of any nationality, most Legionnaires still come from European countries.
Membership of the Legion is a useful guide to political history: specific national representations generally surge whenever a country has a political crisis, and tend to subside once the crisis is over and the flow of recruits dries up. After the First World War, many (Tsarist) Russians joined.
Immediately before the Second World War, Czechs, Poles and Jews from Eastern Europe fled to France and ended up enlisting in the Legion. After World War Two, the German presence was particularly strong. Following the break-up of Yugoslavia, there were many Serbian nationals. Also in the 1990s, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the changes in the former Warsaw Pact countries, led to an increase in recruitment from Poland and from the former republics of the USSR. Recent years have seen an increasing number of recruits from African and Balkan countries.
However, in addition to the fluctuating numbers of political refugees, asylum seekers and economic migrants from a wide variety of nations, there has been, since the end of World War Two, a strong core from two nations in particular, Germany and Britain. The Legion appears to have become as much a part of these two nations’ culture as a French institution, and a certain stability in recruitment levels has developed; it does not follow the general ‘yo-yo’ trend as closely.
After the fall of the Third Reich, Germans, long a major presence in the legion, are believed to have accounted for roughly sixty percent of its manpower. After the war, the French administered two zones of Western Germany adjacent to France. In these zones, recruitment offices enabled many former German POWs to join the legion almost immediately after their release from prison camps. However, Bernard B. Fall, a leading expert on French Indochina and the author of the famous accounts Street without Joy and Hell in a Very Small Place, disputes this figure and claims that Germans made up thirty-five percent of the Legion at most in the post-WWII period. Nevertheless, the image of a German-dominated postwar Foreign Legion is the setting for the well-known novel Devil’s Guard, which narrates a former Waffen-SS member’s brutal experience of joining the Legion and fighting alongside other former SS against the Vietminh in Indochina.
During the late 1980s, the Legion saw a large intake of trained soldiers from the UK. These men had left the British Army following its restructuring and the Legion’s parachute unit was a popular destination. At one point, the famous 2eme REP had such a large number of British citizens amongst the ranks that it was a standing joke that the unit was really called ‘2eme PARA’, a reference to the 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment of the British Army.
While no serious studies have been made of the motives for enlistment over the years, the majority in the Legion’s ranks were either those transient souls in need of escape and a regular wage, or refugees from countries undergoing crises. In recent years, however, the improved conditions and professionalism of the Legion have in turn attracted a new kind of ‘vocational’ recruit, from middle-class backgrounds in stable and prosperous countries, such as the US, Britain and France itself.
In the past, the Legion had a reputation for attracting criminals on the run and would-be mercenaries, but in recent years the admissions have been severely restricted and background checks are performed on all applicants. Generally speaking, convicted felons are prohibited from joining the service.
Legionnaires can choose to enlist under a pseudonym (“declared identity”). This disposition exists in order to allow people who want to start their lives over to enlist. French citizens can enlist under a declared, fictitious, foreign citizenship (generally, a francophone one, often that of Canada or Monaco). After one year’s service, Legionnaires can regularize their situation under their true identity.
After serving in the Legion for three years, a legionnaire may apply for French citizenship. He must be serving under his real name, no longer have problems with the authorities, and must have served with “honour and fidelity” for at least three years. French nationality cannot be granted under a declared identity. Furthermore, a soldier who becomes injured during a battle for France can apply for French citizenship under a provision known as “Français par le sang versé” (”French by spilled blood”).
Ranks and promotions
- Caporal (Corporal) – after 2 years of service
- Caporal Chef (Senior Corporal) – 6 years of service
- Sergent (Sergeant) – after 3 years of service
- Sergent Chef (Staff Sergeant) – after 3 years in rank of sergeant and 7 to 14 years of service
- Adjudant (Adjutant) – after 3 years in rank of staff sergeant
- Adjudant Chef (Senior Adjutant) – 4 years as adjutant with at least 14 years in service
- Regimental Sergeant Major – after 4 years in rank of adjutant
- Major – after 14 years – Either after passing the examination or being appointed without the examination.
- officers are seconded from the French Army
- All French Foreign Legion NCOs began their careers as legionnaires with one in four legionnaires joining today becoming an NCO. NCOs count for 25% of the legion today.
Code of Honour
Every Legionnaire must know by heart the “Legionnaire’s Code of Honour”. The Legionnaires spend many hours learning it, reciting it, and then getting the vocal synchronization together:
- Légionnaire, you are a volunteer serving France with “Honour and Fidelity”.
- Every legionnaire is your brother-in-arms, regardless of his nationality, race, or religion. You will demonstrate this by strict solidarity which must always unite members of the same family.
- Respect of traditions, devotion to your leaders, discipline and comradeship are your strengths, courage and loyalty your virtues.
- Proud of your status as legionnaire, you display this in your uniform, which is always impeccable, your behaviour always dignified but modest, your living quarters always clean.
- An elite soldier, you will train rigorously, you will maintain your weapon as your most precious possession, you are constantly concerned with your physical form.
- A mission is sacred, you will carry it out until the end respecting laws, customs of war, international conventions and, if necessary, at a risk of your life. (Changed in November 2000)
- In combat, you will act without passion and without hate, you will respect the vanquished enemy, you will never abandon your dead or wounded, nor surrender your arms.
- General Information
- Legion Membership
- Composition of the Legion
- French Foreign Legion Recruitment
- Legion basic training
- Recruitment chart
- Marching step