Conscription drummed out as France gets professional

The French President, Jacques Chirac, yesterday announced the end of obligatory national service for the country's youth. It will be replaced from the end of next year by voluntary service and a compulsory "citizen's rendez-vous" - a short period during which health and academic checks will be carried out and classes given about France's defence.

The decision is the result of three months of consultations, which followed Mr Chirac's speech in February in which he called for the introduction of a professional army over the next six years. Numbers in the military will be reduced by 25 per cent to 30 per cent, prompting Mr Chirac to say "we shall no longer need conscripts".

At first the "rendez-vous" will apply to young men aged 18 to 20 and any women who chose to take part.

From 2002 it will become compulsory for both sexes. It is seen as an extension of the present "three days", during which potential conscripts undergo health and psychological tests. The aim is to reinforce national pride and to give the government sufficient knowledge about the country's youth if an international crisis forced conscription to be reintroduced.

Philippe Seguin, the parliamentary leader, said it would "give young French people the chance to accomplish a positive act at least once in their life and to mark their adherence and attachment to their country".

Those who opt to carry out voluntary service will have three options: a "defence and security" service in either the armed forces or the police; "social action" in humanitarian associations or in social administrations and an overseas service. The duration of this voluntary service will vary from 10 to 18 months.

Not everyone is in favour of the plans. The leader of the right-wing UDF party, Francois Leotard, has advocated that conscription should be maintained, because it is "the last means of integration for many young people".

The leader of the Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin, believes that the proposed "rendez-vous" will not be sufficient to maintain the links between the people and the army.

A bill to implement the changes is to be tabled in parliament in autumn.