Comprised of a select 8,000 men, the French Foreign Legion has a reputation for being one of the most challenging environments to serve within in any military worldwide.
Formed in 1831, the Legion formally sits as a branch of the French Army. Yet, it is thought of as its own entity, with a unique identity and ethos.
What is foreign in the French Foreign Legion is not where it fights but who it commands to do that fighting.
For over two centuries, myths have existed ranging the Legion's tenacity in battle, a ruthlessness of fighting to the death, and of it taking a relaxed approach to the candidates it admits into its mysterious brotherhood.
Criminals, fraudsters, chased businessmen and deserters … apparently, all are welcome. But is this true today?
A strictly no women allowed organisation, the French Foreign Legion has seen action during the last twenty years in Afghanistan, Bosnia, Cambodia, Chad, Congo, Djibouti, French Guiana, Gabon, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, Rwanda, and Somalia. They are a busy bunch of men.
But what is a myth, and what is the reality? Let's find out …
What Are The Common Myths About The French Foreign Legion?
You may have heard rumours that on-the-run murderers and rapists can sign up to the French Foreign Legion and become anonymous, or that if you are AWOL from the military, you go to France and be accepted into the Legion with few questions asked. There have been other, darker, rumours about the Legion sending swathes of fighters to countries in Africa and needlessly killing people or of Legionnaires keeping parts of their dead enemies as trophies.
Most of these myths are, as you probably expect, precisely that. Myths.
However, some rumours about the Legion are entirely accurate.
Can Criminals Join The French Foreign Legion?
This common query around running away from crimes, or moving on from earlier dalliances with the law, is one of the most frequently asked questions about joining the Legion.
If we were discussing this 100 years ago, the answer would be straightforward: yes. Anybody looking to escape their past, whether due to major or minor criminality, could sign themselves up to the Legion and disappear into its ranks.
However, today, that is not quite the way things work.
Whereas the French Foreign Legion will turn a blind eye to minor criminal records, it will not permit recruits into its ranks who have serious records or who are wanted by Interpol.
In 2014, one man who had tried to join the French Foreign Legion wrote about the experience for Vice.
Simon Bennett, an insurance worker from Birmingham, Alabama, described how he decided to go to France and sign up for the Legion.
"I had quit my job, moved out of my apartment, and put most of my worldly possessions into storage back in the US. I was in shape and I was committed. A one-way plane ticket, a couple of layovers, and 22 hours of traveling later, I found myself on the ground in Aubagne, France."
Yet, in terms of the checking of the potential recruit's background, particularly for criminality, Bennett described coming face to face with what those in the recruitment process referred to as "The Gestapo" – a section of Legionnaire staff who tried to "intimidate you into telling them everything you've done wrong since birth.
"I heard tales of once-private naked pictures being enthusiastically critiqued, browser search histories being scrutinized, and sexual orientation being relentlessly challenged by the Gestapo. In my case, I think that my not-great grasp of the French language served as a blessing in disguise, as my guy seemed only to want me to get the f**k out of his office."
Although Bennett outlined a somewhat mild background check at that stage in the process, he did go on to concede that "someone, somewhere [had] access to all of that information".
Can Military Deserters Run Away And Join The French Foreign Legion?
Another age-old rumour concerns fully trained soldiers from other armies going AWOL and turning up later in the French Foreign Legion.
Due to electronic record tracing being a reasonably modern matter, in the past, anybody found it easier to join the Legion than people with similar shady backgrounds today.
However, there is recent evidence of members of other militaries successfully escaping their regular duties and switching them for life as a Legionnaire.
In December 2014, Second Lt. Lawrence Franks Jr. of the United States Army was sentenced to four years in prison and dismissed from the military on charges of conduct unbecoming of an officer and desertion.
Franks, a medial platoon leader, had run away in 2009 from his Fort Drum base in New York to join the French Foreign Legion.
Speaking to reporters ahead of his sentencing, Franks alleged he struggled with suicidal thoughts and a desire to fight a war in the run-up to his desertion. Discussing this to the New York Times, he said he "needed to be wet and cold and hungry," adding:
"I needed the grueling life I could only find in a place like the Legion."
During Franks' trial, French Brigadier General Laurent Kolodziej provided a video testimony from Paris, during which he said, "We never ask where they come from.
"You have people knocking on the door, just make sure they don't have blood on their hands, and we take them in. The Legionnaires, it's about giving someone a second chance."
Do You Get A New Identity When You Join The French Foreign Legion?
The Legion's own website deals with this frequently asked question around getting a new identity when signing up to its ranks. It simply says: yes.
All new recruits to the French Foreign Legion are handed a new identity.
For example, Lt Franks, who joined the Legion in 2009, was given a new identity as Christopher Flaherty.
Do You Simply Just Turn Up And Join?
Unlike joining the British Armed Forces, the French Foreign Legion does not deal with paper or online applications, letters of invitations, or face to face interviews during which you can show off bronze Duke of Edinburgh Awards certificates.
The only way a recruit can join the Legion is to turn up in mainland France and knock on the door of one of the numerous Foreign Legion recruiting centres. Once through the centre door, recruits are given free food, accommodation, and clothing.
Recruitment centres are open 24 hours a day, 365 days per year. Although, on its website, the Legion recommends arriving between 8am and 5pm.
What Are The Entry Requirements To The Legion?
Although the basic concept of just turning up at the Legion's gates in mainland France at first seems straightforward enough, the organisation does operate a set of requirements that a recruit must measure himself against to join. They are:
- Be a man aged between 17.5 and 39.5 years.
- Have a passport (or if from within the EU – an ID card).
- Have a birth certificate.
- To not be wanted by Interpol.
- Be physically fit enough to serve at all times and in all places worldwide for at least five years.
- To have a BMI between 20 and 30.
- To be able to read and write in your own language.
Can Married Men Join The French Foreign Legion?
The Legion's own website describes the conditions of life for a new Legionnaire as "corresponding to that of a single person."
However, married men are permitted to join the French Foreign Legion, but they will be enlisted as single men.
What Are The Pay And Conditions Like?
The Legion will place a contract before a candidate when they initially arrive at a recruitment centre in mainland France. That contract will require five years' service, a matter it describes as "non-negotiable". Upon signature, they are officially members of the French Foreign Legion.
A new identification is given, and possessions are taken away and stored.
At the preselection centre – where a recruit first signs up – a three-to-14-day process is followed comprised of entry tests. A recruit can be failed at any stage, and his belongings and original identity are returned to him.
Following this, a recruit moves onto selection at the Legion's base in Aubagne, lasting about seven days. This is a period of psycho-technical evaluation, medical examinations, and necessary personality tests and motivation interviews. A candidate is asked why they want to join the Legion, and good answers help progress becoming fully-fledged Legionnaires.
The final stage of training takes up to four months and is classed as "incorporation" by the French Foreign Legion. This part of the joining process includes four weeks at "The Farm" – a secret element of French Foreign Legion recruits' training.
Successful recruits at the end of this stage will have the "delivery of the contract in the hall of honor of the French Legion Museum." After that, the fully trained soldier is assigned to the 4th Foreign Regiment.
But how much do new members of the French Foreign Legion get paid?
The starting salary for a new Legionnaire is 1,380 Euros per month. This equates to £1,175.00.
However, unlike the British military, the Legion says that "during your first years as a legionnaire, up to the rank of corporal included, you are dressed, fed and housed free of charge."
They also provide 45 working days of holiday per year. The salaries attract added bonuses for field training, external missions abroad, and if selected for the Parachute Regiment.
Do You Become French When You Join?
Joining the French Foreign Legion is a pathway to citizenship. However, it is not possible to do this for the initial three years of service.
The Legion's website says that if "he serves well, he will be entitled to a residence permit at first, the nationality will be given to him conditionally.
"This is generally granted, subject to having a good way of serving and having proven its willingness to integrate into the French Nation."
However, there is another path to citizenship that does not require a minimum of three years' service.
"French by spilled blood" – or Français par le sang verse – allows members of the Legion to become French citizens if they are wounded on the battlefield.
Have you served in the French Foreign Legion? We want to hear about your experiences. Email [email protected]