Argument

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Emmanuel Macron Wants YOU for the French Army

Mandatory military conscription is the French equivalent of Donald Trump’s wall — a pet project that’s become a political albatross.

By , a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.
Emmanuel Macron gestures as he gives a speech during a campaign meeting in Marseille on April 1, 2017.  (Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images)
Emmanuel Macron gestures as he gives a speech during a campaign meeting in Marseille on April 1, 2017. (Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images)
Emmanuel Macron gestures as he gives a speech during a campaign meeting in Marseille on April 1, 2017. (Bertrand Langlois/AFP/Getty Images)

In France, the ideal of serving the republic is as old as 1789 and the revolution that created it. It is only fitting, then, that Emmanuel Macron, whose campaign book was titled Revolution, made obligatory national service a centerpiece of his run for the presidency. Now that he is president, however, Macron’s proposal resembles nothing so much as U.S. President Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall on his country’s southern border — a self-inflicted political albatross that the president won’t, or can’t, let drop.

There’s a reason the proposal resonated during the election campaign. The French Revolution’s founding document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, insisted upon not just rights of man, but also the duties of the citizen. “Aux armes, citoyens!” was the most primordial of duties to the republic. After 1815, this revolutionary institution came and went, as successive monarchies suppressed the mandatory call to arms, while successive republics salvaged it.

This long and checkered history came to a close in 1997, when then-President Jacques Chirac ended obligatory national service, whether under military or civilian auspices. Confronted by the hostility of traditional republicans on the left and right, Chirac proposed to replace it with a “rendez-vous citoyen” — the requirement that all young men and women spend time learning to “prepare for the nation’s defense.” Such rendezvous have been happening ever since, though their duration has been reduced from five days to one. (They are regarded by participants about the same way that Americans view jury duty.)

In France, the ideal of serving the republic is as old as 1789 and the revolution that created it. It is only fitting, then, that Emmanuel Macron, whose campaign book was titled Revolution, made obligatory national service a centerpiece of his run for the presidency. Now that he is president, however, Macron’s proposal resembles nothing so much as U.S. President Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall on his country’s southern border — a self-inflicted political albatross that the president won’t, or can’t, let drop.

There’s a reason the proposal resonated during the election campaign. The French Revolution’s founding document, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, insisted upon not just rights of man, but also the duties of the citizen. “Aux armes, citoyens!” was the most primordial of duties to the republic. After 1815, this revolutionary institution came and went, as successive monarchies suppressed the mandatory call to arms, while successive republics salvaged it.

This long and checkered history came to a close in 1997, when then-President Jacques Chirac ended obligatory national service, whether under military or civilian auspices. Confronted by the hostility of traditional republicans on the left and right, Chirac proposed to replace it with a “rendez-vous citoyen” — the requirement that all young men and women spend time learning to “prepare for the nation’s defense.” Such rendezvous have been happening ever since, though their duration has been reduced from five days to one. (They are regarded by participants about the same way that Americans view jury duty.)

From the martial clarity of “La Marseillaise,” the ideal of serving the republic was thus reduced to a kind of civic mayonnaise, undemanding and uninspiring. As a result, earlier this month, President Macron acted on his campaign vow and sought to fortify it with a bit of fiber.

During his campaign, Macron had vowed to reinstitute, in his words, a “service militaire universel.” French men and women between the ages of 18 and 21, he declared, should be given “the experience, however brief, of military life.” Though Macron seems most at ease when he is extolling individual initiative, the issue of national service allowed him to signal his recognition of the primordial role of the state in the French republican imagination.

And though he never served himself, having been born in 1977, just weeks shy of the cut-off date for mandatory service (he nevertheless received an educational deferment), Macron described the service program as filled with benefits. Overseen by the army and gendarmerie, it would reinvigorate a collective sense of republican duty, offer common ground for youths from different social, economic, and geographic backgrounds, and “in times of crisis, allow the state to provide a complementary reserve for the National Guard.”

Since becoming president, Macron has maintained his vow. He seems to believe the program has become critical to his reputation as a man of his word, though he does accommodate necessary tweaks. Just as Trump now concedes that his wall does not necessarily translate into 2,000 miles of translucent ramparts, Macron no longer describes this obligatory service as military. Last month, in a speech to the country’s military leaders, Macron swapped out the adjective “militaire” for “national.” But, he quickly added, the promise would be fulfilled: “I want to reassure all of you that this project will be acted upon and seen safely to port.”

By the time the universal national service program limps into port, however, it risks being repossessed by the banks. While candidate Trump insisted that Mexico would pick up the tab for the wall, candidate Macron never mentioned the price tag. For good reason, it turns out: Parliamentary and governmental reports have since cited costs that range from the boggling to the staggering. Predictably, the lowest annual estimate, hovering around 3 billion euros, is found in a report commissioned by Macron’s prime minister, Edouard Philippe. In contrast, in a Senate report last year the price estimate for 800,000 young conscripts ballooned to 30 billion euros, while a member of the National Assembly’s finance committee estimated that renovating the infrastructure alone for this program would be between 10 and 15 billion euros.

The projected costs are all over the place partly because the project itself is all over the place. Last week, a parliamentary commission that included members of Macron’s party, La République En Marche!, outlined a kind of national service lite. The length of service would be divided into three phrases, beginning with an intermediate school course in “civic and moral education.” At the age of 16, all students would attend a weeklong affair dedicated to “defense and citizenship.” Students can fulfill this requirement at various places, ranging from the local fire station to undefined “fraternity schools.”

The final stage, for all youths between 18 and 25, is a so-called “l’incitation à l’engagement” — which translates to “a plea to get involved.” As the name suggests, young men and women would be urged, not compelled, to join already existing civic organizations. The reasons are several: Not only did the commission want to avoid a popular uprising, but it also wanted to avoid a clash with the European Court for Human Rights, which as one commission member noted, might rule that such a law would constitute “forced labor.” Also playing a role, no doubt, was the resistance of military leaders, who fear their budget will be raided to pay for Macron’s pet project. The brass didn’t take kindly to Macron’s proposal last year to freeze the military budget. Publicly expressing their worries about inadequate means to finance a growing list of military operations, they eventually forced him to backpedal.

The minister for the armed forces, Florence Parly, is now intervening to game the outcome . At a press conference last week, she asserted the national service would not be “facultatif,” or optional, with only the less than reassuring proviso that “the gendarmes won’t knock at the door of those who refuse to serve.” One of Macron’s closest collaborators, Interior Minister Gérard Collomb, quickly underscored his colleague’s declaration. “If the president has one quality,” he remarked, “it is perseverance.” While the government is still debating the final nature of the program, Collomb announced, the president “has reaffirmed that it he wanted it to be obligatory.”

As the confusion mounted among his ministers, a Jovian intervention erupted from the Élysée. To a group of reporters, Macron reaffirmed that the universal national service would, indeed, be mandatory. At the same time, however, the president adopted his signature “at the same time” (“en même temps”) approach. The length of service might be as short as three months, he observed, or as long as six months. Moreover, it could be served with a civic organization or, if one preferred, in the military. In any case, Macron declared, these details have yet to be ironed out.

No matter how thick the rhetorical fog, the phrase “service obligatoire” stands out. In a public statement, FAGE, France’s largest student union, denounced Macron’s “demagogic proposition which aims to ‘set right’ a generation thought to be the source of every social ill: radicalization, delinquency, abstention, apathy and subversion.” Citing studies that reveal record levels of civic participation among the young, the statement concluded that Macron’s plan was a campaign gimmick “profoundly disconnected from the needs of France’s youth.” As for the military, its representatives agree that it is the government’s priorities that need to be set right. The previous minister of veterans’ affairs, Jean-Marc Todeschini, sent a warning shot across the government’s bow: “The armed forces do not have the capacity to assume the cost of universal national service.”

Despite the swelling skepticism, Macron maintains he is undaunted. With a Napoleonic flourish, he declared: “Many say [the national service program] is impossible to achieve … which in fact reinforces my conviction that it is a necessity.” Perhaps. But, of course, the man who said “impossible” is a word found only in a fool’s dictionary eventually met his Waterloo.

Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at the University of Houston’s Honors College and the author of Victories Never Last: Reading and Caregiving in a Time of Plague.

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