PARIS — Colonel Eric de Lapresle had never seen anything like it.
Since this month's Paris and Saint-Denis terrorist attacks, the French Armed Forces recruitment services have received some 1,500 requests for information per day. That's three times more than before Nov. 13, says de Lapresle, the head of marketing and communication for French military recruitment.
"This is huge," he says. "We have seen a mass influx of applications."
There was already a recruitment bump in January, after the previous Paris terror attacks against the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the kosher supermarket. Through 2014, an average of between 100 to 150 young people were coming in daily for information about signing up, which rose to 400 after the first round of attacks in January.
Among the thousands inquiring all across France were several young men who showed up on a rainy afternoon last week at the Information and Armed Forces Recruitment Center in Vincennes, a mid-sized city east of the capital. For Eliot, an 18-year-old bartender, the scenes of slaughter of innocent victims in Paris was a clear message. "When I saw what happened on Friday, I told myself that this was unacceptable," he says in a voice cold with rage. "We must react and destroy the Islamic State."
The young man cites the motto of the French Republic: "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity — these three words are threatened. Everything is threatened," says Eliot. "The Islamists want to destroy us. But they will not succeed. Our army is powerful, they are small."
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French ary recruitment ad — Source: Recrutement armée de Terre
Cyprien, a freshman mathematics and computer science major at a Parisian university, said he went back and re-read the 1789 Declaration of Rights of the Man and of the Citizen, "I agree with everything, point by point. All men should be free and have equal rights," he says. "It's not normal that people feel vulnerable."
Though foreign-bred terrorism is a threat to the French Republic, Cyprien says: "The real dangers come from French citizens, not from terrorists." He fears a shift to the extreme right in France as a reaction to the attacks. "That's the biggest risk for the Republic."
Cyprien had already dreamed of becoming a Navy fighter pilot, though he knows that poor eyesight might prevent that. But whatever the assignment, he says he wants "to protect people." He ends up revealing that his 15-year-old sister was at the rock concert at the Bataclan theater where 89 people were killed. "She's alive, everything's fine," he says. "But it has strengthened my will."
Colonel de Lapresle is pleased to see all these youngsters showing up. "It's the only good news right now," he sighs in his office decorated with military memorabilia. He notes that the candidates could have been at the Bataclan or one of the bars or restaurants targeted. "It is this same youth that is coming to us today, with great generosity."
Colonel Bruno Bert, who runs recruitment in the region of Ile-de-France, where Paris and Vincennes are located, echoes the sentiment. "Serving is the main motivation, it comes before the idea of a career," Bert says. "Many people were genuinely affected by what happened."
"We have to defend ouselves"
Showing up at the recruitment center in Vincennes to be enlisted is no guarantee of making it into the military. "Not everyone can be a soldier," Bert warns. The process of recruitment lasts four months, during which candidates must pass a range of tests: physical, cognitive, psychological.
"Our selection system is very efficient," de Lapresle adds. "We have time to evaluate the real intentions of the candidates and if one of them is unbalanced, we should be able to notice it."
Others, even with the best intentions, wind up dropping out. Of the 160,000 initial contacts that the army predicts for 2015 (compared to 120,000 in 2014), only 35,000 are likely to be accepted. However, the selection requirements do not get tougher with the uptick in sign-ups: If applications increase, more positions will be opened. There were 10,000 in 2014, and will be 15,000 by the end of this year.
For Thierry, 23, who came to sign up in Vincennes, there is an extra motivation. On the night of the attack, he was working as a security guard at the Stade de France. He was about to leave when he heard the first explosions of what turned out to be two suicide bombers. He and his boss rushed to the scene. "When we got there, the remains of the suicide bombers were everywhere: bowels, ribs and a head that was lying in the corner. I was shaking."
After doing his best to manage his own stress, and maintain order around the stadium, he arrived back home at 1 a.m. "I collapsed. But already, my decision was made: "That's it, I am joining the army"," he told himself.
He had thought in the past that a military career might beat being a local security guard. "But I wasn't ready, neither physically nor mentally." he recalled. "Today I'm still not in shape physically, but what happened that night made me ready mentally."