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Conscription – The Enduring Loophole in French Political Culture

AFP/Scanpix
AFP/Scanpix

France and conscription have a flawed, nostalgic relationship.

Outbreaks of large-scale violence or national disunion such as the 2005 urban riots or terrorism incidents in 2015 have brought about a call for a return to the “national service”. It is almost as if France would be an orphan of conscription. Contrary to other countries, such as the Baltic States, calls for a return to conscription in France do not link it to a renewed threat assessment, or changing operational needs. Conscription rather constitutes a solution to the dilution of social cohesion. To put it bluntly, this “conscription call” is rather an illusory shortcut-attempt at solving complex societal issues.

The 1997 suspension of conscript service

Conscription and national service were suspended—not abrogated—in 1997, with the last conscripts performing their service in the beginning of the 2000s. The mutation of the armed forces’ operational needs in the 1990s made the “law of numbers” irrelevant, while agility, flexibility and overseas deployments became the main tenets of France’s strategic posture. However, conscription is the object of enduring nostalgia and excessive expectations, as a tool for social cohesion rather than as a security need.

France’s history of conscription is rather recent. It became truly compulsory and fair only in 1905 within the framework of republican consolidation. It followed a century of political instability and turmoil since the 1789 Revolution, a passage through the Napoleonic experiment, several returns back to Monarchical rule, and most importantly a crushing defeat against the Prussians in 1871. Together with the Separation of Churches and State and universal compulsory school instruction in the beginning of the 1900s, equal male conscription is a product of the 3rd Republic. The drafting and call to arms of all men of a class of age culminated in the experience of the First World War, which undeniably secured the Republic for good. Scholars coined the “brutalisation of society” as a phenomenon following First World War whereby the experience of fighting in the trenches and the atrocities of the war gave several classes of age a common violent experience and set of mind which had deep societal and political roots in the inter-war period. This brutalisation of society undeniably rooted the citizenry’s acquiescence to military conscription deeper.

However the great fatigue engendered by the Second World War, the beginning of the Nuclear age, the threats of Cold War confrontations, the creation of the UN and the severe constraints to the use of force in international relations toned down this military enthusiasm. France soon started adopting a focus on overseas operations, alongside an enduring system of conscription, which was decreasing in scope and fairness. Conscripts started their service at an increasingly older age and therefore the relevance of military service as an institution of civic education and maker of social cohesion started to decrease: conscripts had already studied, worked and travelled, they had already seen the world. The end of the Cold War and the disappearance of direct military threats to the national territory put a final stop to conscription. In 1997, the Parliament suspended national service. It got replaced by a “universal national service”. Universal because it was to include women from then on. “Service” was however a misleading denomination. The Law of October 28th, 1997 in fact created a “citizenship roadmap”: a mix of civic education at school, one compulsory “defence call” day and a series of possibilities to enlist on a voluntary basis for various forms of military and civilian reserve training.

False premises

Emmanuel Macron made it a campaign promise in the run-up to the presidency to make for a one-month compulsory and universal form of military service. Elected to the highest office, he refined his vision last July, addressing the armed forces, and explained that his intent would be to mostly give meaning back to the universal national service. The July 2017 speech laid out an essentially civic intent for a remoulded service for which the first phase of experimentation would not be until the beginning of 2019.

Calls to reactivate conscription rest on a series of false premises. The first one is to think that the armed forces do not in the current configuration contribute to social cohesion. A series of frameworks still fulfil a cohesive and integrative role, to mention but a few: military and civilian reserve enlistment opportunities; the Adapted Military Service; the Voluntary Military Service. The second flawed premise is to consider that setting up a renewed form of military service would contribute to solve the issue of fading youth civic and political participation. Excessive hopes in the benefits of military service overshadow the deeper, structural socio-economic causes of lower youth political participation, not to mention the fact that the armed forces have no enthusiasm nor financial or human resource for educating an eligible age cohort of 800,000 people annually.

Perhaps the inner contradiction of a renewed, although short, conscription is the absence of incentives for the draftee to comply with the military structure and authority. Drafting only made sense when integrated either in a clear defence policy or as a culmination and truly useful moment of social integration. The example of contemporary Finland is instructive. Military service there forms a consistent part of a male citizen’s integration as part of the national and defence community. Finnish conscripts have a clear understanding that their training actually makes sense with respect to the country’s national defence policy and conflict preparedness.

An enduring loophole in French political culture

It is difficult to understand the relevance, in France’s current strategic context, of a call back to conscription—and this is not the main motivation for the current dynamic. More provocatively, the current calls back to conscription or at least a renewed form of universal national service sound like yet an overreaction to the issue of terrorism in peaceful and democratic societies. Traumatic outbreaks of violence bring a sense of distorted social cohesion, that something must be fundamentally wrong with society in general. Acts of terrorism tend to be perceived not as one-man, or one small group of men’s isolated actions but as a more general pattern pitting communities against each other.

Calls back to conscription reflect a double irresponsibility. First, it would be an additional burden on an already overstretched military organisation. Second, playing with the idea that an easy fix to deeper societal problems and issues would exist carries great political risk. Politicians should take the responsibility to be creative and devise courageous and balanced policy actions instead of political gesticulation. Calling for a return to conscription, since it is not linked to updated operational needs but rather to a sense of a quick response to deeper societal problems is both irrelevant and outright dangerous: what if conscription does not yield the expected results? What further quick fix will we invent to avoid the fundamental issues?

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