Rendezvous with a legionnaire

2008-12-01 00:00

He shrugged his camouflaged backpack onto the rack and took a seat opposite mine. Blonde cropped hair, fair skin, a muscular frame. His clear blue eyes caught mine, momentarily holding the gaze before looking out at the busy Avignon station. The train began to move forward, slowly gathering speed as it cleared the town and moved into the countryside. Paris in two hours 45 minutes. Distance 500 kilometres.

For the first hour he slept. Like a soldier. Any place. Anywhere. A French army conscript on weekend pass, I presumed. The neatly cultivated land slipped past, baking in the late summer heat of Provence. We swept across the Rhône into central France.

I noticed the young man staring at me and leant forward.

“Conscription?” I ventured, ruing my lack of French.

A curt nod.

I held up two fingers. “Two years?”

A shake of his head and a spread hand.

“Aha, five years.” This was no conscript.

“Légion étrangère?”

“Oui monsieur.”

His smile broke the ice. I ventured further and rubbed the fingers and thumb of my right hand together. How much do you earn? With a scribbling motion, he gestured for a pen and paper.

Slowly he wrote and then pushed it towards me. I read Kosovo 3 200 euros; beneath that in an almost childlike scrawl, Afrique 3 000 euros, and then France 1 700 euros. My wife leaned across to see and I explained that the young man was a legionnaire of the French Foreign Legion. She did not seem impressed. She ventured: “Paris? Famille?”

“Non.” Indicating himself he said, “Russia. St Petersburg.”

My next question was beyond him. Translation came via the young mother across the aisle, tired of wrestling with her small son, who had been following our halting efforts.

During the course of the next few minutes it transpired he was fresh from a tour of duty in Kosovo and was en route to Paris for some leave.

In answer to a question from my wife I explained the story of the French Foreign Legion while he listened, trying to understand my English, occasionally smiling as he caught the meaning of a word. I explained how young men from all over the world would hear of the magic of the “Légion étrangère” and make their way to France to sign up. How they would pitch up at a recruiting station or Legion barracks and explain that they had come from Albania or New Zealand or Khazakstan and they wanted to join. They know the contract is five years, at the end of which is an honourable discharge and a French passport. Nobody is turned away. You are taken in, given a meal and shown a bed.

The following day the questioning begins. Who are you? What is your name? Do you have a criminal record? The Legion security police leave no stone unturned as they peel away the layers of your life as one would peel an onion. It is relentless. After a day or two of this you have no secrets left.

Youthful crimes such as car theft are ignored. Criminal records are checked and rechecked. Murderers are handed over to Interpol. Physical and intelligence testing follows, and no exceptions are made, with probably fewer than 30% of applicants being accepted. And then the Legion police give you a choice: do you want to retain your name or accept another? Most keep their own, but those fleeing lovers or families or for reasons known only to themselves will accept a name given to them by the Legion.

Recruits are gathered together into a manageable group of about 30 and basic training begins. This 15-week period of isolation is one of the most important stages in turning these young men into soldiers and “servants of France”. They are kitted out and trucked to one of the many training depots which the battalions maintain, called “the farm”. Here, under the direction of seasoned instructors, they are taught the rudiments of soldiering, from personal hygiene and weapons handling to mastery of the French language, from fieldcraft to the traditions of the Legion. Nothing is forgotten. Not even the marching songs of the Legion, many unchanged since the days of Beau Geste.

Since 1831, when the Legion was formed in response to legislation that prohibited foreigners from serving in the French Army, it has attracted more than its share of soldiers of fortune, adventurers and romantics. Who can forget the haunting words the American poet legionnaire Alan Seeger penned with foreboding three days before his death in action in World War 1?

“… But I`ve a rendezvous with Death/ At midnight in some flaming town/ When Spring trips north again this year/ And I to my pledged word am true,/ I shall not fail that rendezvous.”

As we approached Paris the young legionnaire offered me a small plasticised card. It was adorned with the head of a sunburned soldier resplendent in his white kepi, while the reverse bore the code of honour of the Legion: “You are a volunteer serving France faithfully and with honour. Every legionnaire is your brother-at-arms, irrespective of nationality, race or creed. Your mission is sacred to you, and you will accomplish it to the end and at all costs. You will respect your vanquished enemy and never abandon your wounded or your dead.”

I put it in my wallet and thanked him. A firm handshake and a smile, an “Au revoir” as he shouldered his pack. I watched as he walked lightly along the platform before being swallowed up by the crowd in the Gare de Lyon — a wild goose who had pledged his allegiance to France, and who in return would be adopted and protected as one of her own.

the french foreign legion

• The French Foreign Legion is a unit in the French Army established in 1831. Although open to French citizens and staffed only by French officers, graduates of the French Army Academy at St Cyr, it was created as a unit for foreign volunteers when they were forbidden to enrol in the French Army after the July Revolution of 1830.

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