Special Operations: The Legion Does The Dirty Work For Free

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April 18, 2009: Despite its mercenary reputation and a persistent myth that it enlists criminals and psychopaths, the French Foreign Legion continues to serve as France’s primary force for external deployments. The Foreign legion is unique in that, contrary to popular belief, it is not a separate armed force but just another unit of the regular, and recently professionalized, French Army. France suspended conscription in 2001 in order to enable France to revert to volunteers for its manpower needs.  

Although there have been calls for the Foreign Legions disbandment, the French have come to rely on the force so heavily for peacekeeping and combat deployments that they simply cannot afford to get rid of it. The rest of the regular French Army, save for a few other elite units, have little to no experience in actual field operations, and abolishing it would take away a great deal of manpower in the already compact land forces. The Foreign Legion has been deployed by France to Algeria, Djibouti, Indochina (Vietnam), Bosnia, Rwanda, the Ivory Coast, Somalia, and, of course, Afghanistan. Within this force, the most sought after assignment is with the Legion’s only parachute regiment, the 2nd REP.

Manpower levels hover generally at around 8,000 officers, NCOs, and enlisted men. Not a huge force, but certainly enough to handle their responsibility as a rapid reaction force. Most of the Legion's officers are regular French Army officers, graduates of the nation's military academies, but some, around 10 percent, are former enlisted legionnaires. 

In fact, the Legion, an elite army within the army, has proven so effective that the French have been reluctant in the last 50 or so years to deploy only their regular forces to conflict zones in lieu or without the support of the Legion. Some trends, however, indicate that this may be changing. Although the Legion is still deployed to Africa and Afghanistan, France has in recent years beefed up their combat, not just support, presence in Afghanistan with elite paratroopers, “red berets”, from the regular French Army. These units, although not as famous, have a storied history and high standards of performance themselves, having been deployed alongside the Legion in both the Algerian and Indochina Wars. The French paratroopers ambushed by the Taliban last years were from the 11th Parachute Brigade, a non-Legion unit. As France continues to contribute troops to the efforts in Afghanistan, which seem destined to continue for some years to come, any decision to increase the number of combat troops on foreign deployments is likely to break with tradition and begin including formations from the regular army.  

 

 


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