Testimony; You're in the army now

Sean Cornwell was proud of his connection with France - until he was arrested as a deserting soldier

Le Soldat Cornwell Sean. Strange words - implausible nonsense, in fact, to anyone who knows me.

It was at 3.20pm on Wednesday, 19 February that I was stopped, or rather arrested. I was returning to London from Heidelberg for a job interview the following day and I had just been dropped off at the France/Belgium border. Everything had been going well - too well for hitch-hiking. I'd even secured a lift all the way to London... I'd easily make the second half of Arsenal vs Man Utd in the pub.

All this was before an over-zealous French border guard decided that the interest of his nation would be better served by inspecting my passport. No problems with stamps from countries like Cambodia, China and Guatemala, but one little word caused a commotion in the tiny booth: place of birth - Paris.

I had always been rather proud of my French connection. Never again. One phone-call was all that was needed for my life to fall apart. "What's wrong?" I tentatively asked. "You mean you don't know?" replied a gendarme. "You are a deserter from the French army and have been since 1994."

Although I left Paris at the ripe old age of two, and my birth certificate wasn't a French one, but rather had been issued by the British consulate in Paris, it seemed I was considered a French citizen. The line "Officer, surely there must be some mistake," merely elicited laughter and the curt reply, "No, my friend, you are here for 10 months." Suddenly, the seriousness of the situation struck me. Could I possibly make a phone call? No chance. More laughter.

An hour later, I found myself in the back seat of a police van, a gendarme either side of me, being escorted to the nearest gendarmerie. I'll be able to sort it out here, I naively presumed. But again, I came up against the same bureaucratic brick wall, and it was here, rather than at the barracks later, that I was made to feel a real criminal. First came the signing of a confession, typed by the police chief. Next came fingerprints. And, finally, mugshots: nerves almost got the better of me as I restrained my laughter in this seemingly farcical situation. Should I do a silly pose? Just how did Kevin Spacey look in The Usual Suspects? Somehow, I think fear prevailed.

I was then driven to the army barracks at Lille, a worryingly imposing fortress with a narrow bridge over a moat - the sole exit. Here, I was formally incorporated into the 43rd Regiment of the French Infantry, Matriculation Number 96 750 10281. Apparently, it would be at least three days before I'd get clearance to go home to collect my things and return to barracks. And, no, I couldn't make a phone call. There were phone-card booths outside, I was informed.

Phone cards could be bought outside the canteen. The only snag was I had no French francs, and I didn't think "I'm just popping down to the cashpoint" would have gone down too well with my hosts. Thankfully, a fellow soldier gave me his, enabling me to SOS my family.

To be fair, the soldiers in the barracks were very friendly. I met one bloke from Clapham, half-English, half-Senegalese, 29, and married with kids, who confessed his mistake had been to speak French. Thank God I met him. From that second on, not a word of French passed my lips. Apparently, several people of pure English stock have had unexpected 10-month holidays in Lille.

That night, after a meal the like of which I had not tasted since prep- school, I hit my lowest point: I didn't know whether to laugh or cry, it was all so ridiculous. If only Jeremy Beadle would walk in.

It was then that one of my dorm-mates, also a recent unwilling recruit from some nearby council estate, pulled a bag of weed from his trainer (to which he got a "You must be bloody joking" in my best stiff upper lip). For his next trick, he suggested that it was easy to escape - a mere 10-metre jump. He even offered to show me the way, but I declined. At 10pm it was lights out. I was left to contemplate three more similar nights.

It took me some time to realise where I was at 5.30am when I dragged myself to breakfast. Other soldiers tried to chat to me, but as far as I was concerned, any contact I had with them made me more like them. Thankfully, I was spared the thing I was dreading most - the morning run and exercises. Instead, I was led to the offices, where they soon realised that I was of no use to them. My inability to comprehend the simplest French instruction sped things up marvellously and, thanks to numerous phone calls from London, the officer in charge soon lost patience. I was sent to have an army medical where I was deliberately failed.

On returning to the base, I was handed my release papers - and I ran. But when I was sent back at the gate, I feared the worst. This time the reason was trivial - I had forgotten to collect my pounds 40 travel money.

According to the French embassy, only male French citizens are officially required to do national service. Foreign nationals who were born in France are not deemed French citizens and are therefore exempt - although they have heard of cases such as Sean's in the past.

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

    SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

    Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

    £85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

    Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

    £55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering