AUBAGNE, France — The Foreign Legion isn’t what it used to be. Killers on the lam are no longer welcome, and unhappy recruits have a year to back out without being branded deserters.
These days a bigger issue faces the 175-year-old force that made its name fighting France’s overseas battles in jungle and desert. Its primary mission — to be a crack professional force of non-French volunteers available for instant, no-questions-asked deployment in far-flung conflicts — has all but evaporated.
In campaigns from Algeria to Vietnam, Madagascar to Mexico, Legionnaires made up the bulk of the combat forces and suffered most of the casualties. Even in Bosnia a decade ago, serving as U.N. peacekeepers for the first time, they made up a significant portion of the French contingent there.
But this summer, when Paris contributed 2,000 troops to the U.N. force in Lebanon, only 200 Legion engineers went along.
For a 7,770-member force with a carefully nurtured identity epitomized by its trademark white hats, or “kepis,” there is no longer much to set the Legion apart from the rest of the French army. Four years after France ended conscription, all 250,000 members of the armed forces are like the Legionnaires — professionals and volunteers.
“They are an anachronism, the last remnants of a medieval mercenary tradition,” said Dominique Moisi, a political analyst. “While they were the only professionals in a conscript army, they made sense, but not now that everybody else is professional, too.”
Ironically, the Internet has opened a whole new world of recruiting for the Legion, which already boasts 130 nationalities in its ranks. The application form is translated into 13 languages.
Legion spokesman Lt. Col. Christian Rascle insisted that France, still intent on being engaged abroad, will continue to need the Legion.
“It will politically always be easier to dispatch foreigners rather than French soldiers to such places,” Col. Rascle said.
Throughout its history, the Legion has endured threats to its survival. Even King Louis-Philippe, who established the corps in 1831, tried to abolish it several years later.
In the 1960s, President Charles de Gaulle sought to disband the Legion after several regiments mutinied against his decision to end French rule in Algeria.
Then, as now, most recruits are men driven from their homelands by political turmoil, economic hardship or by the need “to start life all over again,” Lt. Col. Rascle said.
“We know that a lot of our guys are not exactly angels, but unless they’re hardened criminals we’re prepared to give them a second, third or even a fourth chance,” he said.
Although the Legion weeds out serious criminals in cooperation with Interpol and the French police, those seeking to “set some distance between themselves and the law” for minor offenses are welcome to assume new identities in the Legion.
Only male recruits are accepted, but many female officers of the regular French army work as liaisons with the Legion. Applicants must be foreign, but about 20 percent are French nationals who join posing as nationals of other French-speaking countries such as Belgium.
The Legion has long had an aura of “march-or-die” camaraderie and brutality. A century ago, it was said to punish deserters by burying them up to the neck in sand and abandoning them to the jackals.
It was also romanticized in pop culture, most memorably in the 1939 Hollywood classic “Beau Geste,” in which Gary Cooper battled Sahara Bedouins on camels.
No such perils face today’s recruits, but the entry tests are still rigorous — only one in eight candidates who arrive in this gritty southern French town passes muster. Desertions which historically plagued the corps are rare now because recruits have a year to reconsider and return to civilian life.
Recruits tend to come in waves — Germans in the 1940s, Hungarians in the 1950s, English speakers in the 1980s, and lately, East Europeans.
The spirit of the unit’s motto — “Legio Patria Nostra” (“The Legion Our Fatherland”) — remains strong.
When a receptionist at Legion headquarters was asked about his nationality, the corporal replied: “Me? I’m a Legionnaire.”