Paris (AFP) – The army general in charge of bringing back national service in France said Thursday he would try to make it appealing for youngsters amid signs of resistance to a pet project of President Emmanuel Macron.
After months of consultations the government unveiled Wednesday the “universal national service” promised by Macron while campaigning for the presidency last year.
Contrary to his initial proposal it will not be an initiation to military life but a civic service for boys and girls aged around 16 that aims to foster patriotism and a culture of volunteering.
Despite being watered down since it was first floated, 15 youth organisations have opposed the service, saying young people should be free to choose how they contribute to the greater good and not be press-ganged into service.
Acknowledging their objections, General Daniel Menaouine, appointed by Macron to head the project taskforce, told Europe 1 radio on Thursday: “My challenge is not the obligatory nature but its appeal.
“Young people must want to come.”
– Seeking cohesion –
France’s last conscripts were demobilised in 2001, ending nearly a century of military service which saw millions of men put through their paces.
While some look back fondly on their stint in the army, saying it helped create a sense of fraternity, there was widespread relief when former president Jacques Chirac scrapped it.
The new two-part service, which will be written into the constitution, will be rolled out over seven years starting with a trial phase in 2019.
Around 750,000 youngsters will take part each year, creating a huge logistical challenge for the state.
An initial two-week “integration phase” will take place during the school holidays and be conducted in state-run summer camps and boarding schools across the country, where youngsters will be taught first aid, orienteering and other basic skills.
The second phase involves work on a “collective project”, such as volunteering with a charity or local government.
Macron has billed the service as a way to develop social cohesion in a country battling deep divisions between left and right, rich and poor and religious and non-religious.
He initially presented it as a way of giving young people “a direct experience of military life with its know-how and demands”.
But the idea raised hackles in the army, which is already stretched thin by anti-terrorism patrols and operations at home and abroad and which feared being saddled with the cost, estimated by the working group at around 1.6 billion euros a year.
The government dithered for months on the idea, with Defence Minister Florence Parly appearing at one stage to cast doubt on the scope of the plan, saying it would “probably not be obligatory”.
But Macron — the first French president to not have been called up to serve, having come of age after military service ended — has stuck by his guns on the compulsory nature of the service.
He has said his aim is to give young people “causes to defend and battles to fight in the social, environmental and cultural domains.”
Channelling John F. Kennedy in his New Year’s address, the 40-year-old centrist who has vowed to restore a sense of national pride told the French: “Ask yourself every day what you can do for your country.”
Many details of the national service have yet to be finalised, including who will conduct it.
The taskforce has proposed putting other young people, such as public administration students, teaching students and young reserve force members, in charge of leading the “battle”, with help on the planning end from the army.
The remaining details will be fleshed out during consultations in the coming months between the government and groups representing young people and their parents.
But it has already been shot down by the conservative Republicans party and the far-right National Rally (formerly known as the National Front).
The Republicans have said anything short of a six-month service would be fruitless, while the National Rally has dismissed the idea of a civic service as a “sort of souped-up holiday camp”.