Few French regret the farewell to arms

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The Independent Online
MARY DEJEVSKY and

JOANNA LEE

Paris

Within hours of appearing on television to announce the end of conscription, President Jacques Chirac moved to nip in the bud any dissent from within the military establishment. Addressing more than 500 military staff officers at the military academy in Paris yesterday, Mr Chirac said in the definite tones that soldiers would understand that he "expected" their unfailing adherence to the work of rebuilding France's national defence".

He understood their "legitimate concerns, questions and emotions" at the impending reforms but: "you must understand that there is not and never has been any immutable model for French defence. Military service has been compulsory for less than a century. Realism requires that our armed forces should now be professional".

The President's decision to abolish conscription over a period of six years does away with a rite of passage for young Frenchmen that has existed since the Revolution, even though obligatory national service was enshrined in law only in 1905. As recently as 1993, an opinion poll showed more than 60 per cent of French people asked said they feared the abolition of conscription could jeopardise national security. A poll conducted this month, however, showed more than 70 per cent of those asked favoured ending the practice, and on the streets and in offices yesterday the response to Mr Chirac's announcement was generally positive.

Among people who completed their 10-month stint of national service in the last few years or were contemplating the prospect, there was almost universal approval, tempered by a slight sense that something hard to define - mixing with people from other backgrounds, a formative experience, a process that fostered national or social cohesion - might none the less be lost.

Franz, aged 26, now an engineer, spent his 10 months in Berlin. "I found it very useful, met people from all walks of life and learnt much more about the real France." There were "pluses and minuses" about abolishing conscription, he said.

Patrick, who spent his year in the French city of Valance assigning and collecting uniforms and is now a computer manager, said he was in tears for his first week and hated most of his time. He thought it was "useless" as a form of military training - "I only fired a rifle twice" - but, in retrospect, useful for learning how to get on with people and instilling patriotism.

Christophe, now 32 and an accountancy adviser, was adamant: "Abolition is absolutely right." Quiet and reserved, he had been keen to avoid military service: "I just wasn't cut out for it and thought I would get very depressed." After the preliminary three-day induction period, which involves medical and psychological examinations and preliminary training exercises, he found himself signed off as unsuitable.

One way and another, as many as 25 per cent of those liable for conscription in France somehow avoid it - the percentage is probably much greater in the more educated and higher social classes.

According to Geoffroy, a 26 year old reporter, who spent his time in the Navy with the information office in central Paris, the injustice is a good reason for abolishing it. People with money or connexions, he said, can wangle themselves well-paid assignments abroad. "It's the inconsistency: some do it, some don't. It's not fair."

Several expressed support for the idea of a new socially orientated voluntary service that would be open to both men and women. But the idea seemed less popular among girls. At present, French girls have the option of voluntary military service and a small but increasing number choose to take it.

Among politicians, the response was mixed. The mainstream left expressed great reservations largely, it seemed, because they felt they had been deprived of a much-heralded national debate. For although the end of conscription has still to be framed as legislation, Mr Chirac has given no sign that it is in any way negotiable and as commander-in-chief of the armed forces - military and defence policy is his prerogative.

The bulk of the mainstream right, the Gaullist RPR and the UDF, expressed support for the move, or at least an acknowledgement of its inevitability. Among the dissenters were Francois Leotard and Charles Pasqua, former defence and interior ministers, Mr Pasqua lamenting the loss of a part of France and Mr Leotard dismissing the idea of a new voluntary civilian service as "utopian". However, Gaullists who hinted at regret for the nation-building aspect of national service were directed to a 1934 publication entitled: Towards a professional army. Its author was one Charles de Gaulle.

Which countries still have consciption

Country Yes Term of Total forces Conscripts

or No service

United States No Ended 1973 1.5 million N/A

Russia Yes 2 years 1.5 million 400,000

Turkey Yes 18 months 518,000 415,000

Ukraine Yes 2 years 452,000 N/K

France Yes 10 months 409,000 189,000

Germany Yes 12 months 339,000 137,000

Italy Yes 12 months 328,000 175,000

Poland Yes 18 months 279,000 158,000

Britain No Ended 1960 240,000 N/A

Spain Yes 9 months 206,000 126,000

Greece Yes 19-23 months 171,000 114,000

Czech Republic Yes 12 months 86,000 40,000

Netherlands Yes 9 months 74,000 28,000

Hungary Yes 12 months 71,000 48,000

Sweden Yes 7-15 months 64,000 31,000

Belgium No Ended 1993 47,000 N/A

Slovakia Yes 18 months 47,000 N/K

Data from International institute for Strategic Studies, The Military Balance 1995-96

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