France is bringing back national service

Macron France June 2018

Mr Emmanuel MACRON, President of France. Shoot location: Bruxelles – BELGIUM. Shoot date: 28/06/2018. Copyright: European Union

This article is brought to you thanks to the strategic cooperation of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Alex Gray, Formative Content

During his election campaign, the French President Emmanuel Macron promised to reintroduce national service – and he has just taken a major step to deliver on that vow.

The President has outlined a two-part scheme that would see all young people in France taking part.

The first part of the programme would be a one-month placement focussed on civic culture, including voluntary work, teaching support or time with the police, fire service or army. The second phase would be a voluntary stint of three months to a year in “in an area linked to defence and security,” or in options including community service.

Macron is not a military man, but he believes the heightened security threats to his country mean all young people should understand the role of the army.

“…the threats that weigh on our country forces us to reinforce the link between the army and the nation. I therefore want every young French citizen to experience…a short, obligatory and universal national service,” he said during his presidential campaign.

In addition, Macron believes national service will boost social cohesion, by bringing together young people from all walks of life.

Military service in France was abolished in 1997 by the then President Jacques Chirac, who wanted to modernise the French army following the end of the Cold War.

But Macron says that “the current period is a turning point comparable to the Cold War, but this time we are entering an era of extreme turbulence, a new era of conflicts.”

Too expensive?

The plan is being billed as universal national service, but the details have yet to be finalised.

However, critics say it will cost too much.

Estimates put the cost at around €3.6bn, which includes building 18 regional centres across France, in order to take in 4,500 young people for a month at a time.

Many Generals also have their doubts. They believe that training around 800,000 youngsters a year will be a severe drain on military resources. “It’s not our job. We can’t be a combat army and educational centre at the same time,” one officer told Reuters.

A good idea

Image: YouGov

President Macron is not alone in thinking bringing back national service is a good idea.

In 2015, the UK’s Prince Harry said that a stint in the army had a hugely positive influence over both he and his older brother’s life. “Without a doubt, it does keep you out of trouble,” the prince said. “Bring back National Service – I’ve said that before.”

In a recent YouGov survey, 2,698 British adults were asked about bringing back national service. Almost half (48%) of Brits were in favour of a reintroduction, but there were stark differences in age groups.

When asked “would you support or oppose bringing back compulsory military service for young people, who would serve for a month with the armed forces?” 74% of over 65s said yes, but only 10% of 8-24 year olds said the same.

National service ended in the UK in 1963.

Post-Cold War armies

Most European countries moved from a conscription-based army to a voluntary one after the Cold War. But some countries are holding onto it, or, like France, bringing it back.

Countries with conscription as of 2015
Image: Center for Security Studies (CSS), ETH Zurich

Five years ago, voters in Switzerland overwhelming voted in favour of keeping their national service.

In a nation-wide referendum, 73% voted against proposals to do away with national service, a proposal brought forth by the Group for Switzerland without an Army (GSOA).

Austria also voted to bring back national service the same year, with 60% voting in favour.

In January 2018, Sweden re-activated conscription, which had only ended in 2010.

“The security environment in Europe and in Sweden’s vicinity has deteriorated and the all-volunteer recruitment hasn’t provided the Armed Forces with enough trained personnel. The re-activating of the conscription is needed for military readiness,” said the government statement.

Lithuania and Ukraine have brought back conscription in light of Russian activity in Crimea and the Ukraine.

Across the world, many countries continue to have mandatory national service, including Angola and Mozambique, North Korea and Israel.

A series of consultations will take place in October among French youth before deciding just how the universal national service will work.

The first conscripts could be reporting for duty next summer.

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