Testimony; You're in the army now
Sean Cornwell was proud of his connection with France - until he was arrested as a deserting soldier
Sunday 23 March 1997
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.
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