Conscription in France
France was the first modern nation state to introduce universal military conscription as a condition of citizenship. This was done in order to provide manpower for the country's military at the time of the French Revolution. Conscription continued in various forms for two hundred years until being finally phased out between 1996 and 2001.
The French royal army of the 17th and 18th centuries had consisted primarily of long-service regulars together with a number of regiments recruited from foreign mercenaries. Limited conscription for local militia units was widely resented and only enforced in times of emergency.
Universal conscription in the modern sense originated during the French Revolution, when the Republic needed stronger military forces, initially to defend the country against counter-revolutionary invasion and subsequently to expand its radical ideas throughout Europe. The 1798 Jourdan Act stated: "Any Frenchman is a soldier and owes himself to the defense of the nation".
Following the Napoleonic Wars, the restored Bourbon monarchy returned to its traditional reliance on long service volunteers plus some Swiss and German mercenary regiments. Numbers were filled out by limited conscription, the burden of which spared the middle and upper classes who could purchase exemption. This unequal system continued until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Under the Third Republic the French Army became the "school of the nation" utilising universal military service following the Prussian model.
"Three Year Law" of 1913
In 1913 France introduced a "Three Year Law" to extend the term of French military service to match the size of the Kaiser's Army. France's population lagged significantly behind Germany in 1913; the population of mainland France was 40 million as opposed to Germany's 60 million. In contrast to Germany and Russia, who were able to offer exemptions or deferments to accommodate educational commitments or family circumstances, France required virtually all fit males of the appropriate age group to undertake full-time military service for three years from the age of 20. As part of the 1913 measures a limited form of selective conscription was imposed on the Muslim population of Algeria, who had previously been required only to offer volunteers for service in the French Army.
World War I
With war imminent, 2.9 million men were mobilized in August 1914. These comprised conscripts undertaking their three years of obligatory service, reservists of ages 24 to 30 who had completed their period of full-time service, and territorials drawn from older men up to the age of 45. While reservists had been required to undertake periodic re-training in the form of annual maneuvers, the territorials had no peace-time commitment and were not intended for employment in the front-line in the event of war. However France's heavy losses on the Western Front required the deployment of all three categories of conscripted man-power, especially during the early months of the war.
World War II
France had retained conscription between the two world wars, though they relied upon the French regulars of the Colonial Army, native regiments and the Foreign Legion to garrison its overseas empire. However, the birth rate dropped, primarily due to the fact that over a million young Frenchmen had been killed off in the First World War and many more had been wounded.
French morale also sank, and the French High Command mainly consisted of old commanders who had led troops in the First World War. On the outbreak of war, the Commander-in-Chief General Maurice Gamelin was already past retirement age. In sending his best troops and the whole of the BEF through Belgium, he attempted to refight the Great War. He gravely underestimated the German Army's tactics, however, which contributed to the Fall of France and over 4 years of occupation.
Post-war period and the end of conscription
Following liberation in 1944, France returned to a universal military service system. However conscripts were not required to serve in the Indo-China War of 1947-54 which was fought by French and colonial volunteers plus the Foreign Legion and locally recruited forces. By contrast the Algerian War of 1954-62 involved the extensive use of conscripts on the rationale that Algeria was legally part of metropolitan France.
France suspended peacetime military conscription in 1996. President Jacques Chirac's government formally announced the end of compulsory military servicein 2001. Young people must still, however, register for possible obligatory service of an unspecified nature (should the need arise). A recent change is that women must now register as well.
- John Keegan (1979). World Armies. pp. 219–220. ISBN 978-0-333-17236-0.
- General R. Hure, pages 265-266, "L'Armee d' Afrique", Paris-Limoges1977
- The World at War episode 3 "France Falls"
- Conscription drummed out as France gets professional - World - News - The Independent