French teens deployed on revamped national service
French President Emmanuel Macron’s revamped national service has begun with 2,000 teens reporting to centres across France for a fortnight of activities designed to promote national unity.
France ended compulsory military service in 1996, but bringing back some form of national service was one of Macron’s campaign pledges in 2017.
Macron caused surprise with his promise to introduce month-long compulsory national service, saying he wanted to give teens “direct experience of military life”.
At the end of the fortnight, the volunteers will face a simulated emergency, like a traffic pileup or a nuclear accident.
“Universal National Service” is largely civilian but has military elements after the original proposal got a cool response from the army at the prospect of having to put millions of teens through their paces. The government came back with proposals for compulsory civic service instead.
The first group were volunteers but it is due to become compulsory for all 16-year-olds, who will give up their mobile phones apart from during an hour in the evening.
Around 2,000 young people, including 50 teens with disabilities, were chosen out of 4,000 volunteers to be sent to boarding schools, holiday villages and university campuses.
Soldiers and teachers will train the teens in how to respond to a terror attack or a natural disaster.
The days start at 7am with flag-raising and singing La Marseillaise. They wear naval uniforms for ceremonies and fluorescent vests for civil protection training.
There will be modules on first aid, map reading, self-defence, national security, sustainable development and French values. Evening debates will be held on issues including gender discrimination and racism in an attempt to make teens engage with each other, away from screens.
According to an IFOP poll, the initiative is supported by some 74 per cent of French citizens but there were questions about whether two weeks was sufficient to establish societal cohesion among teenagers.
“We agree with the government’s findings on the lack of social diversity, but we think that the SNU is not the answer,” said Orlane Francois, who heads a student union. “Two weeks in barracks, it can seduce a part of the population nostalgic for military service, but not young people who are the ones affected by it.”
Junior education minister Gabriel Attal said each house of 10 teens would have an adult supervisor but the teens would be responsible for dividing up tasks and taking care of their accommodation.
Attal said an objective was to get young people out of their habitual surroundings and to open their eyes to new experiences and to get youngsters to engage with each other.
“We want to give youngsters reflexes for defending, protecting and reacting to terrorist attacks or natural disasters, organising search parties for missing people, and so on,” said Attal.
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