Skip navigation

Foreign Policy Centre

Ideas for a fairer world

Articles and Briefings

France's Military Politics

By Richard Gowan. Source: The Globalist

26 June 2006

The run up to the 2007 elections in France are bound to be a bitter, hard-fought contest. Though France has no need for a mass conscription army, Richard Gowan writes that the military may become a central campaign issue. In fact, socialist candidate Ségolène Royal is recommending one in an effort to give the government a new option in dealing with civil unrest among its rebellious youth.

Whenever French youth take to the streets, as in March this year, it is not long before Anglo-Saxon commentators are citing "the legacy of 1789" and "the spirit of 1968."

These dates, they imply, demonstrate the anarchic underpinnings of France's politics. But recent Parisian political debate has echoed another tradition stretching back to the 18th century: the idea of the French citizen not as a revolutionary — but as a soldier.

Those who believe Europe has lost its taste for the armed forces may be surprised to see the run-up to next year's French presidential election take a distinctly martial turn.

Ship 'em out

This May, the rising socialist star Ségolène Royal branded Jacques Chirac's decision to end compulsory military service in 2001 "a mistake." Troublesome teenagers should be sent to military-style academies or humanitarian work abroad "in a service supervised by the military" so as to "get to know the world and their good fortune to live in France."

Some on the left attacked Madame Royal's statement, while the media put it down to the fact that she is a general's daughter, born in colonial Senegal.

All for one?

But Royal will have been all too aware that her opponents on the right are already happy to play on military memories.

Reflecting on the French "non" to the European Constitution in May 2005, the popular defense minister Michèle Alliot-Marie argued last December that "a combined initiative in the defense and security field could help revive both confidence and action in Europe."

And in January, President Chirac surprised some of his European counterparts by arguing that France's nuclear deterrent could be used in response to terrorist threats.

Politics is politics

Such sabre rattling is not uncommon in many European democracies as elections approach — and the right tries to show the left is soft on security.

In Britain, one of Tony Blair's great successes of the late 1990s was to show that his Labour government could use force, and one of his failings this decade has been to be overconfident in doing so.

Learning citizenship

But, while Ségolène Royal is a vocal admirer of Blair, her appeal to the virtues of military training was not simply an effort to replicate his toughness. Indeed, she insisted, the idea was not to teach already-violent youths how to use tanks and rifles.

The goal was social and political, for compulsory service would help them to "learn citizenship." With these words, she hinted at a new stage in a deeper and distinctively French debate between left and right on the idea of la nation armée — "the nation in arms." That debate stretches back not to 1789 but 1793, when French citizen-armies stunned Europe with a series of decisive victories.


Almost as resonant are 1870 and 1871, when — as popular history has it — the people launched a guerrilla war against Prussian invaders, in spite of the total defeat of France's armies and capitulation of its last emperor, Napoleon III.

Until the First World War, these dates were a significant counter-balance to any emphasis on 1789 and later popular uprisings.

…Or revolutionaries?

Frenchmen could be defined as much by their national solidarity in the face of outside threats as their internal revolutionary clashes.

The greatest test of that solidarity came in the exhausting blood-letting of Verdun.

Even after 1918, French military and political leaders still believed that the military should aim for — in the words of one general — "the ever more complete realization of the nation of arms."

Return to glory

A few officers, such as Charles De Gaulle, argued against this orthodoxy, but when De Gaulle returned to France after its occupation by Hitler in the next world war, he ordered renewed conscription "to give France the great armies she desires."

An appeal to military virtues was not the preserve of the generals. If the political left was often ready to appeal to the memory of 1789, it was not ready to yield 1793 to the right.

The fighting French?

Maurice Merleau-Ponty, a left-wing Left Bank philosopher, claimed that national defense could be a Communist issue, as the proletariat had often had to come to the defense of the "heritage deserted by the bourgeoisie, as in 1793, 1871 — or even in 1944."

Yet, if France's ideologists wanted to battle over the heritage of la nation armée, they had two problems. First, the nation was increasingly less inclined to be "in arms."

By the late 1950s, a poll found that only 7% of respondents would consider risking their lives for France. Second, in the nuclear age, mass conscription was increasingly irrelevant. Chirac's decision to end compulsory service came long after its usefulness had ended.

Scaling down

Since then, France's military profile has changed markedly. In the mid-1990s, its active armed forces numbered 409,000 personnel. Today they stand at just under 255,000 and French troops have withdrawn from many of their bases across francophone Africa.