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.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Howard Marks who has been diagnosed with inoperable cancer aged 69
people
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch has spoken about the lack of opportunities for black British actors in the UK
film
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
Rowan Atkinson at the wheel of his McLaren F1 GTR sports car
people
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us