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 law 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 by lot, the burden of which spared the middle and upper classes who could afford to purchase exemptions. This unequal system continued until the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. Under the Third Republic the French Army became the "school of the nation" utilizing general military service following the Prussian model. Shorter periods of service, alternative hospital duties or other forms of exemption were however still permitted for certain categories such as student teachers and priests. It was not until 1905 that universal military service for a period of two years, without exception on any but medical grounds, was introduced.
"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.
Between the wars
France had retained conscription between the two world wars, though the country 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 in the First World War and many more had been wounded.
As a transitional measure conscription was reduced to 18 months on 1 April 1923. In 1928 this was changed to one year. A serious short-fall in available numbers and the growing threat of a resurgent Germany obliged the French Army to extend conscription to two years under the Law of 16 March 1935.
World War II
French morale in 1940 had declined for a variety of political, social and military reasons, and the French High Command largely consisted of aging commanders who had held senior positions 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.
Under German pressure, the small "Armistice Army" of the Vichy regime broke away from the now classical French dependence on conscription in favour of voluntary enlistment. This short-lived force was poorly equipped and of mixed allegiances. North African and colonial forces were reduced to the level necessary to police the territories in which they were stationed.
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. This meant an increased reliance on voluntary enlistment and by 1950 conscripts made up only 29.1% of total French Army effectives. 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. In 1957 with the Algerian War at its height 57% of the army consisted of conscripts, mostly from metropolitan France. It was still possible to draw on substantial numbers of Algerian Muslim volunteers and conscripts, although issues of divided loyalties made the North African troops less dependable towards the end of the war. During this period the majority of French military units were made up of a mix of volunteers and conscripts in varying proportions. Only the Foreign Legion remained an entirely professional force.
With France finally disengaged from colonial commitments it was possible to progressively reduce military service to 18 months from 1962, 12 months in 1970 and finally 10 months in 1992. The drawbacks of this reliance on short-term conscripts became evident at the time of the First Gulf War when France had to draw on its limited number of fully trained professional units to provide a significant contribution. The relevance of the historical system of universal military service to modern commitments and warfare accordingly came under review.
France accordingly suspended peacetime military conscription in 1996. President Jacques Chirac's government formally announced the end of compulsory military service in 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