The “Legiondary” French Foreign Legion
Three good-looking Frenchmen, two of which were dressed immaculately in impressive uniforms, arrived at Le Café de la Mairie along with their Professeur d’Anglais, Emelie Cleret, ‘ready for action.’ They all came to “Parler Paris Après Midi” just for our honor to talk to us (in English) about “The Story of the French Foreign Legion.” (You may remember Ms. Cleret from a past Parler Paris titled “Inside the Ecole Militaire“).
Photographer, Victor Ferreira, a veteran of the French Foreign Legion of 25 years, set up a slide show of images from his book, “La Legion dans la peau” which ran continuously while the two officers (colonels), Alain Lardet and Jean-Christophe Bechon, each made a presentation describing the history of the legendary (or “legiondary” as I prefer to call it) military organization — the world’s most famous fighting corps.
It’s always held a certain mystique and exclusivity, simply because it was born of the need to rapidly create a fighting unit in 1831 and therefore open to all nationalities, while commanded by the French. Only 24% of the Legionnaires are French in today’s regiments, while the rest come from about 150 different countries. The training focuses on military skills and a strong “esprit de corps” — bringing together all these nationalities to stand for one cause — France.
The model of the French Foreign Legion has been tried in other countries — in China, Israel, Holland, Russia and Spain. It has a romanticized view of it being a place for displaced persons seeking a new life — where one can change one’s name and ultimately, his nationality. A Legionnaire seeking nationality in France applies like anyone else, but it holds a high favor with the immigration authorities.
The colonels very distinctly remarked that there are no women in the French Foreign Legion, however, they perhaps forgot about Englishwoman Ms. Susan Travers, who was the only woman ever to serve officially. In 1941 “she was a chauffeur for a medical officer of the 13th Demi-Brigade during the Syrian campaign in which Vichy French Legionnaires fought Free French Legionnaires. She was nicknamed ‘la Miss’ by the Legionnaires. She then traveled to North Africa via Dahomey and the Congo. During that journey, she had a brief affair with Georgian nobleman and Foreign Legion officer Dimitri Amilakhvari. She was then assigned as driver to Colonel Marie-Pierre Koenig and also became his lover.” (Wikipedia.org)
Ferreira’s book of images of Legionnaires adorned in tattoos, a tradition among the ranks, just happens to be represented by an American-born Legionnaire on the cover. “Tatouage” is a long tradition within the Foreign Legion, a symbol of their pride to be a part of the Legion. Rare would it be for a Legionnaire to be void of them, however, there are some interesting rules the Legion follows regarding their acceptance. For example, swastikas are not allowed, nor what they deem as “stupid” (although I suppose this is subjective). The Legion’s Web site notes that “if you have a vagina tattoo between your eyes or a penis tattoo on your arm, stay at home!”
One of the Legion’s most interesting stories, told to us by one of the colonels (both of which spoke virtually perfect English), is of Captain Jean Danjou’s wooden hand, worn to replace the hand he lost in Algeria. Nearly all of his unit was lost during the 1863 Battle of Camerone in Mexico — 65 men attacked by 2,000 Mexican infantry and cavalry. Danjou was one of the few to hold out in an old hacienda and lost his life at the very end of the siege, while a few of the Legionnaires survived. His wooden hand remains a symbol of Legionnaire bravery to this day and is paraded annually on April 30th — Camarone Day.
Ms. Cleret, handed out a paper noting the Legion’s Code d’Honneur or Code of Honor, established in the 1980s, comprised of seven articles. After four weeks of rigorous basic training, the newly recruited Legionnaires, while obtaining their traditional white “képi,” recite the code in unison.
The “Képi blanc” was mentioned in the talk, but I learned later that before WWII, the soldiers wore a khaki colored képi in Algeria and Morocco, but that frequent washing and intense exposure to the sun bleached them out, creating a natural evolution to the now traditional white color. The Legion is the only unit of the French army wearing them and senior officers with more than 15 years of service wear black képis.
The Code of Honor reads (in French, with an English translation following):
Art. 1 Légionnaire, tu es un volontaire, servant la France avec honneur et fidélité.
Legionnaire, you are a volunteer serving France with honor and fidelity.
Art. 2 Chaque légionnaire est ton frère d’armes, quelle que soit sa nationalité, sa race ou sa religion. Tu lui manifestes toujours la solidarité étroite qui doit unir les membres d’une même famille.
Each Legionnaire is your brother in arms whatever his nationality, his race or his religion might be. You show him the same close solidarity that links the members of the same family.
Art. 3 Respectueux des traditions, attaché à tes chefs, la discipline et la camaraderie sont ta force, le courage et la loyauté tes vertus.
Respect for traditions, devotion to your leaders, discipline and comradeship are your strengths, courage and loyalty your virtues.
Art. 4 Fier de ton état de légionnaire, tu le montres dans ta tenue toujours élégante, ton comportement toujours digne mais modeste, ton casernement toujours net.
Proud of your status as Legionnaire, you display this in your always impeccable uniform, your always dignified but modest behavior, and your clean living quarters.
Art. 5 Soldat d’élite, tu t’entraînes avec rigueur, tu entretiens ton arme comme ton bien le plus précieux, tu as le souci constant de ta forme physique.
An elite soldier, you train rigorously, you maintain your weapon as your most precious possession, and you take constant care of your physical form.
Art. 6 La mission est sacrée, tu l’exécutes jusqu’au bout et si besoin, en opérations, au péril de ta vie.
The mission is sacred, you carry it out until the end and, if necessary in the field, at the risk of your life.
Art. 7 Au combat, tu agis sans passion et sans haine, tu respectes les ennemis vaincus, tu n’abandonnes jamais ni tes morts, ni tes blessés, ni tes armes.
In combat, you act without passion and without hate, you respect defeated enemies, and you never abandon your dead, your wounded, or your arms.
One attendee remarked at the end of the afternoon, that it was our most interesting talk ever! I concur, and we all send our special thanks to Ms. Emelie Cleret and her illustrious Legionnaires for their magnanimous presentations, just for our undeserving pleasure.
A la prochaine,
P.S. For those of you in the Los Angeles area, and would like to know more about investing in France, I will be available for private consultations between December 18th and 23rd. Consultations are typically two hours, and I will be offering a special rate in U.S. dollars. Email me to make your appointment: [email protected]
P.P.S. Attend a bilingual reading of Tsigan: The Gypsy Poem by Cecilia Woloch followed by a lively discussion on Saturday, December 13 at 8:30 p.m. Entry is free! The reading is being held at Association Méditerranéenne pour l’échange Scientifique et Culturel – AMESC at 14, rue Jules Vanzuppe 94200 Ivry-sur-Seine. RER C – Ivry sur Seine or Métro Ligne 14, then bus 325, stop Vanzuppe. For more information call 07 71 00 95 80 or email