Who wants to be a legionnaire?
By Conrad MacLean
Tony Abbott was going to win the 2013 election. It made my skin crawl. I knew the French army offered foreigners a minimum of five years’ service. I figured Abbott would only be in power for four years at most. Spending five years in the French army seemed like a good alternative to living in Abbott’s Australia.
The Foreign Legion is the division of the French army that employs non-French nationals. The legion was born out of a migrant crisis in the 19th century. As the newest republic in Europe, France was attracting waves of liberal minded foreigners from the neighbouring monarchies. To control this influx, the migrants were offered French citizenship if they served 5 years in the foreign legion.
That was how I found myself standing outside the gates of Fort de Nogent, 18 years old and waiting for my future.
From inside the fortress a voice called “Nationalité?”
“Australian,” I replied.
The gates swung open. A soldier with dark chocolate skin and a steel grey moustache strode out and examined my passport.
“Australie?” He stared at me, and said something like “Je suis de Nouveau Caladonia.”
“New Caledonia? We’re practically neighbours!” I laughed. I stopped. There was no humour on his face.
The soldier went to find somebody who could speak English. He returned with a surely South African who demanded to know where my “sports clothing” was. I had turned up in the suit I’d worn to my school ball the year before. I thought I’d have to book an interview at some recruitment centre. That’s not how the legion works: you show up at the military base and do your fitness testing straight away.
“Can I come back with my sports gear?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he scowled “Can you?”
I was given a list of stuff to go buy (toothbrush, socks etc.)
Upon returning days later I was brought into a waiting room. I was joined by another applicant, an ex-lumberjack from Canada’s remote north.
We were both marched into an eating hall by an Italian officer. In broken English he asked us why we wanted to join the Legion. You could tell from his facial expressions to what we said that he knew more English than he was letting on. As I talked an almost kindly concern flashed across his roman features, as if saying “you’re too young kid, you don’t know what the hell you’re yourself getting into.”
The Canadian and I were given some Pâté as a kind of breakfast.
The hall was filled with recruits about 16-19 years old, each in a blue or green top.
The boys were led by someone who looked like he had stepped out of a Mardi Gras: A Latin beast, seemingly incapable of communicating without shouting, he was dressed in green short shorts and a matching singlet. He sported perfectly groomed hair and a moustache. This man’s eyes were dotted with fire. There was something quite feminine about his aggression and his hips seemed to swing to a samba.
French Foreign Legion at an army parade, Rome, 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons by Utente: Jollyroger
Mr Mardi Gras was flanked by two deputies; each about 19 years old whose job involved translating his yelling into broken English.
Mardi Gras started yelling at me in French. EAT THE FOOD! FINISH THE FOOD! THROW THE WATER BOTTLE IN THE BIN! I couldn’t stop laughing, it made him more furious.
The deputies were very supportive, smiling as if to say “you’ll come through.” Actually all the young recruits seemed really friendly.
Mardi Gras and his deputies led the Canadian and me up a flight of stairs to a narrow hallway. A chin up bar hung about three meters off the ground across the passage.
He indicated that we had to perform 7 full extension chin-ups as a fitness test. I’d been practicing my chin ups from 90 degrees so I failed this test.
He was about to fail me right there and then but the deputies begged for him to give me another chance. He conceded, on condition I do 10 pull-ups when he returned from his office while he assessed the Canadian.
Mardi Gras gave me very specific instructions of how to stand while he was gone. When I slouched against the wall a passing recruit gestured to me as if to say “don’t stand like that, mate! You’ll get in trouble. We’re all in this together.”
I failed the pull up test. They told me I could reapply in three months. By then the attraction of the legion was dead.