Service national

The man who would become my husband was fresh out of his obligatory French military service when we first met.

“That’s outrageous,” I said. “Conscription in this day and age? A whole year of your life?”

His reply was a Gallic shrug. Military service was only right and normal for the French. After all, it had been in place since 1798. And it wasn’t so bad, he explained. After basic training (during which the young recruits in his division weren’t allowed to use real bullets!) and given that he was a hotel school grad, most of his military service was performed  – you guessed it – in the kitchens, later serving in the officers’ mess.

That was in 1985. France finally abolished its ‘service militaire obligatoire’ in 2002. As a mother whose son was getting close to the age of conscription, I breathed a sigh of relief. In its place they instituted a ‘parcours citoyen’, essentially an instructional course about the military as part of the educational system, complemented by a one-day training course.

Now obligatory national service is back in a new format: a one-month ‘Service national universel’ for all 15 to 16-year-olds. It has begun on a pilot basis in 13 French departments and will be rolled out nationally from 2020.

Macron’s SNU is more societal, culture-building scheme than military service. It designed to inculcate shared values and a sense of engagement, while breaking down social  barriers with two weeks of training camp followed by another two weeks of community service. Those who are interested can also sign up for a voluntary 3-month commitment. The logistics of the whole thing are still being figured out.

France being France, the SNU has been met with skepticism. The spirit of resistance to all things national and smacking of rhetoric is alive and well in this country, as can be heard in the lack of enthusiasm of recruits singing the national anthem, La Marseillaise, in this video of a training session in Tourcoing:

Personally I think it’s a great initiative. If done well it will be a true opportunity for young people across France to meet others from different departments and walks of life. It will be a chance to learn a few basic skills that will serve them well throughout their adult lives: the importance of physical fitness, of community service, what to do in an emergency. It’s only a month, not a year, and presumably financed by the state.

What’s your take on this – is it a good idea or not?

If you’re interested…
– More info on the SNU (in French):
– BBC report (in English):


  1. pedmar10 · June 27, 2019

    Mine did it for two days explanation how it works and register for if needed. Hope not gone i escape mine toi!!!

    • MELewis · June 27, 2019

      You have lived in many countries so it would be hard to say to which one you owe military service! 😅

      • pedmar10 · June 27, 2019

        My boys did it in France only. enough. no need for military they socialise in clubs like playing football with folks from all levels and origins. Better. Cheers

  2. francetaste · June 27, 2019

    As long as fighting for one’s country is done mostly by the poor and minorities, then political leaders and the public in general are too likely to enter into conflicts. When the rich can pay off doctors to claim incapaciting bone spurs for someone who is athletic, it’s a problem. A program that takes in everybody (and that doesn’t focus on war) is a good idea.

    • MELewis · June 27, 2019

      Agree — it should be the same treatment for all (no exceptions) and I do hope it will not focus on fighting. That said, I am personally allergic to any ‘obligatoire’ and would probably have hated it as a teen!

  3. 355101pkl · June 27, 2019

    I am with you on this . I was born too late for any national service in the UK. But my father was called up in 1940 and had to do six years . He took part in the Normandy landings in 1944 and went right through France Belgium and Holland into Germany and he saw the actual surrender of the German high command at Luneburg Heath. in 1945 .His experiences made an ordinary working man a part of living history and it was Just national service but perhaps a bit more extraordinary than the usual. . His experiences gave him another dimension and also a trade for life in telecommunications I think here in the UK things have gotten out of hand and gang culture is so prevalent in cities , There seems to be no easy answers to drugs and knife crime but perhaps changing the outlook and experiences of young people in inner cities may go some way towards solving what is becoming a national catastrophe but it needs a much longer period than one month. One month National Service is not even a half measure.

    • MELewis · June 27, 2019

      Your father’s experience was so extraordinary that it hardly bears comparing with anything being done today. What an incredible thing to have lived through such events and be able to tell the story! That said, I hope we never have another generation which faces such circumstances. Still, as you say, we must do something as a society to deal with a different set of problems today but that could have devastating consequences. A month is surely not enough but it’s a start in the right direction. To even get such a measure off the ground in these days of political infighting is an achievement. Let’s wish them luck!

  4. phildange · June 27, 2019

    I am contradictory in this question . First my political direction makes me appreciate the fact that until a recent past all French men were trained into handling weapons, which always turns out useful for the next revolution . We don’t forget that the concept of “the Nation in arms” was born in 1792 with the first mass conscription of history to defend the new republic . I hate the fact that the weapons are now only in the hands of professionals who will more easily use them against us in the likely next civil war than conscripts . Our governements, and especially the US, do trainings for civil wars, and all these far away small wars that our armies “fight” are also precious training sessions in the mind of our masters .
    Another good point with “le service militaire” was it allowed people to mix with all sorts of folks, from any social level and region, a thing that is not so frequent in ordinary life . I also know a lot of guys who acquired professional skills they needed for later ( the examples of obtaining for free a driving license for lorries and buses during the “service” to get a future job were common) .
    On the other hand I was called in 78, in my Hippie time, and you can guess for me the Army and the Church were the enemies . The general spirit inside the military was hideous to me, and the fact that so many of my peers accepted this indoctrination course with no enthusiasm but nevertheless accepted it with a shrug like your husband made me mad .
    So, contradictory thoughts and opinions, as expected in these ugly times when nothing is done with a pure intention and sufficient means .

    • MELewis · June 27, 2019

      I see your point and as a bit of a contrarian myself, would surely have found a way out of conscription back in the day had it affected me. (In my husband’s defense, he came from a hard-working family that did not question such things.) Personally, I hate weapons of all kinds but would rather see them in the hands of trained professionals if at all. That said, I don’t have reason to fear them being used on me in my world view but if I did, it would be a different story. However, the feminist in me cannot accept a world where only men are trained to fight. At least the SNU will at least bring back this idea of mixing up classes and cultures, as well as genders, which can only be a good thing.

    • 355101pkl · June 27, 2019

      The problem with that is you can’t guarantee that all those that are trained to use arms will aim them away from you. After the first world war there were roaming bands of discontented hardened soldiers in Germany , the Freikorps that helped Hitler to gain power and their weapons were aimed in the direction of socialists. They were far more used to killing hIs opponents without a thought.

      • phildange · June 28, 2019

        Right, it’s a part of the question to consider, we often have to choose between two evils . As I bear the last centuries of French history I can’t forget one old bloke, a 70 y/o retired lumberjack who lived in the huge forest around me . My mate and me met him on a path and he invited us at his rustic home . He had been one of the FTPs, the Communist main force of the Résistance, so he had a lot to tell . We listened to him with fascination, so much that after several hours he said “Come on kids (we were 25), I gonna show you something” . Took us to a barn full of wooden junk, moved a lot of stuff and then, what did we see ? An ARMORED CAR with all its guns, and I’ll always remember his eyes and his sincerity : “In 44 they ordered us to give our weapons back but I couldn’t trust these bastards, De Gaulle, Thorez, etc … I was right, they really screwed us the people later .So I decided to hide this thing, thinking we’ll have it ready for the next time we’ll need it “. This little skinny and gnarled old guy was what I fancy when I think of a real Frenchman .

  5. Mary Katherine · June 27, 2019

    Sounds like an excellent idea to me, and I wish it great success! Thanks as always for interesting info from La Belle France.

    • MELewis · June 27, 2019

      Thanks for chiming in, Mary Katherine. Glad you found it interesting!

  6. Dale · June 27, 2019

    My brother-in-law avoided returning to Greece, his birthplace, until he was 52 because he would have been called in to do his duty!
    However, I am not opposed to this type of one-month service national. I think it should happen the world over. Maybe, learning the basics will also teach acceptance and understanding.

    • MELewis · June 29, 2019

      That is so sad for your brother-in-law! Yet, I could have totally imagined myself doing the same… Agree, Dale, that the shorter service would probably do everyone good, everywhere. As long as it was done in a respectful, politically neutral way, it could open doors for many who might never be exposed otherwise to such an experience. Why not in Canada, eh?

      • Dale · June 29, 2019

        He went last summer and is going back this one, so all good.
        And why not in Canada!

  7. Al in France · June 30, 2019

    I think this is a great initiative, but perhaps this is because I am older and (I hope) wiser and can see the potential benefits!

  8. Noel G · July 4, 2019

    I am unsure. It seems a little odd to try to build culture and cohesion by training people to use weapons.

    • MELewis · July 4, 2019

      Agree! To my knowledge there is no weapons training in the current ‘Service National’. It’s more to do with civic duty and community service.

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