Nation in arms stands down at last

The adolescent boys of France might have been dancing in the streets yesterday - but the announcement passed most of them by. Charles Millon, the Defence Minister, told a parliamentary hearing on national service that men who turned 18 after the end of 1998 would not be required to serve in the army. All today's 15-year-olds and many 16-year-olds will thus escape the dreaded call-up, which has been French practice since conscription was introduced in 1793 and written into the constitution in 1905.

However, three months after President Jacques Chirac announced that the French army would be entirely professional from 2002 and launched a public consultation process on the future of national service, opinion is still divided about whether young men should continue to be called up, and if so, for what.

The Senate committee set up to consider the question concluded: "The only realistic hypothesis appears to be a national voluntary service, open to young women as well as young men, based on freedom of choice and reconciling the interests of our national defence, collective responsibility and individual freedom."

This completely voluntary option, which might, but need not, include a military element, was favoured by Mr Chirac when he announced the switch to a professional army in February.

The committee of the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, inclines towards keeping a compulsory element. The Minister for Urban Affairs, Eric Raoult, was received sympathetically when he argued that the only thing wrong with conscription was that too many youths from "difficult areas" - up to 60 per cent from some housing estates - were exempted. He intimated that the army was exercising a form of selection, not just on health grounds, but on education and general attitude, and that there had to be a return to universality.

Officers from the United States and Britain stressed to the committee that the expense of switching to an all-professional army could easily be underestimated. Professional soldiers are paid more, and when they marry there is the additional cost of housing and education.

The MPs had hoped to prove that a shorter term of military service than the current 12 months might be feasible. They seized on the testimony of the British Army's retired Quartermaster-General, General Sir John Learmont, when he spoke of the two months' "basic training" undertaken by volunteers. But General Learmont also told them: "You do not make a soldier in two months."

Concern about universality and civic responsibility ensured a benevolent hearing for the chief of staff of the German army, General Hartmut Bagger. He offered a litany of political and social reasons why Germany retains conscription, but offered little consolation to those on the committee hoping to propose a shorter stint. The 10 months served by German conscripts, he said, was probably the minimum possible to train conscripts and future professionals side by side.

The MPs are now expected to propose a five- or six-week scheme, compulsory for young men, voluntary for young women, in civic awareness, with a military element included.Both the Senate and the National Assembly are worried about the difficulty of reconstituting conscription in a crisis. This concern may ensure that conscription is "suspended" rather than abolished.

Several more committees have still to report, as do the mayors who were charged with organising local debates across France. There is widespread scepticism, however, about whether the results will make any difference. The politicians and the military are said to have drawn up their plans. The only questions left open, it is said, are whether young men will be able to do even a voluntary form of national service in the army, and whether conscription will be abolished or "suspended".

President Chirac is expected to announce his decision at the end of this month.

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