French Foreign Legion

Summary of Torsten Örn's article in RSAWSPJ no 6 2001.

Contrary to popular belief, the French Foreign Legion still exists. It was set up in 1831 to help France build up a new colonial empire, and its home base was Sidi-bel-Abbès in Algeria. During its first hundred years it saw action not only in various parts of Africa, on Madagascar, in Indo-China, etc but also in the Crimea, Italy, Mexico and in France proper.

All this has been recorded in a recently published new edition of Tony Geraghty’s book March or Die. France and the Foreign Legion (Harper Collins, London 2001). His main emphasis is, however, on recent times. During World War II the Legion was split between Vichy and de Gaulle, and after the war its main task was to help in defending the French Empire against the new wave of nationalism. That meant more action in Indo-China and Algeria, but it all turned out to be of no avail. The Legion also got involved in some of the intrigues against de Gaulle.

The upshot was a much reduced Foreign Legion with its new headquarters in Provence. Small garrisons remain in French Guyana, in Djibouti and on the island of Mayotte. The main task in recent years has been to support governments in French-speaking African republics.

But parts of the Legion also saw service in the Gulf War and in peacekeeping operations in the Balkans. For these tasks they are psychologically and politically much more suited than conscript soldiers. But in the Gulf War they were simply too few in number, and for peacekeeping tasks they have sometimes proved too trigger-happy.

The Legion still numbers about 8 000 men from 138 countries. Their anonymity is guaranteed, which sometimes makes the Legion a refuge for shady elements. 46 % of the men now come from countries of the former Warsaw Pact, but the officers are French.

Clearly, the French Foreign Legion is an anomaly in the 21st century, but like the Pope’s Swiss Guard it is still on the march. Afghanistan next?