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Q&A: The status of the French Foreign Legion

Is French Foreign Legion active?

Recently while reading about the disturbances in the African nation of Mali, I saw a picture of a French soldier wearing a patch of the famed Foreign Legion. I thought that outfit was past history. In your estimate, how many Americans serve in that fighting force?

We put this question to author Jamie Salazar, who was born and reared in Indiana, joined the French Foreign Legion in 1999 but eventually left and subsequently wrote a novel based on his experience, Legion of the Lost, which was published in 2005.

"The French Foreign Legion is still active today, despite its black-and-white 1930s film perception. In the modern age of rights, laws, and national sovereignty, the French have clung on stubbornly to the idea of a mercenary force. The Legion operates as a highly disciplined and motivated army of nearly every nationality in the world. Americans have traditionally composed a tiny contingent of fighting men. In a force of roughly 8,000 men (women are still barred from serving), Americans compose no more than a dozen volunteers. However, some of the most legendary fighters have been American, from Cole Porter, to a number of Harvard University romantics during the Great War.

"But the Legion continues its tradition of policing the most insalubrious parts of France's former colonies. For most of its existence since 1831, it had been based exclusively in Africa. Algeria was its birth home. But after independence, the Legion packed up and relocated to France proper.

"But l'Afrique has never been too far away, as rebellions, putsches and general chaos on the continent has required the Legion to restore order on a nearly continual basis. The Legion has been a restless, if not a somewhat dangerous force during peacetime, and fighting abroad has been de rigueur. The Legion, thus, is very much at home battling insurgencies in the Sahel, their traditional home.

"The Legion plays an integral role as the sharp end of French foreign policy, a bulwark of foreign volunteers who have no qualms being sent, as one famous general once said, 'to a place where they can die.' "

The introduction to the French Foreign Legion website includes this message: "Whatever your origins, nationality or religion might be, whatever qualifications you may or may not have, whatever your social or professional status might be, whether you are married or single, the French Foreign Legion offers you a chance to start a new life."

According to the website, there are currently 7,699 men enlisted: 413 officers, 1,741 noncommissioned officers and 5,545 legionnaires divided into 11 regimental formations. The members come from 136 countries. The initial term of service is five years, and volunteers may join either under their real name or a different one.

You can read more about the French Foreign Legion at

Q&A: The status of the French Foreign Legion 02/10/13 [Last modified: Thursday, February 7, 2013 4:33pm]
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