Geopolitics

When France's Foreign Legion Becomes French

Each year, about 200 soldiers from the elite military unit become naturalized French citizens.

Foreign legion in Southern France city of Orange
Delphine de Mallevoüe

PARIS — Even if the sky was falling, they would still stand straight and calm. They are the Légion Étrangère, the French Foreign Legion, a unique military unit with its own history in this patriotic land.

As they do every year, the Legion stood out at this past July 14th's national celebration parade. Perhaps it's because of the myths that surround this unique elite unit, which was created in 1831, and the distinct white kepi, a French military cap with a horizontal peak, that the troops wear. Wielding axes and big beards at the parade, they walked in front of the flags and their chiefs, unlike all the other units. It was a tradition inherited from history, when they were in charge of clearing paths with their axes.

The Legion is the only unit that marches at "88 steps per minute," an officer explained, whereas other units do 120 steps for the same time. Other particularity: all troops, when they get to the Champs Elysées and face the president, split up. The legionnaires go to the same side — "undivided," a battalion commander of the 4th Foreign Regiment pointed out.

This year, there were 205 legionnaires of 44 nationalities at the parade. They are all members of the 4th Regiment, the Legion's school based in Castelnaudary, in the south of France, which trains between 1,300 and 1,700 men each year. Most of them were in Paris for the first time. After 12 years of service in the Legion, Sergueï, a 32-year-old Russian, asked for French nationality. The naturalization document was handed to him on the July 13 during a ceremony at the Senate — by the French president.

"He was crying with happiness," on the day he got the news, an officer recalled.

French Foreign Legion marching on Bastille Day 20177 in Paris Neuf Officiel

Most legionnaires, however, don't go through the administrative steps to become French. Since 1998, 5217 legionnaires have received French nationality through naturalization — about 200 per year. "Only 10% of the men ask for French nationality," said Colonel Nicolas Dufour of the 4th Regiment. "There are many easier ways to obtain citizenship."

For the Foreign Legion and its 8,624 men of 150 different nationalities, administrative requests are constantly analyzed. These soldiers need to have served for at least three years, a way to "avoid illegal immigration," and they also need to prove they want to be part of the French nation and obtain a certificate of good behavior.

The request is looked at by commanders of the Legion, who can sometimes refuse it. It's then sent to the Interior Ministry or the prefecture. The procedure is the same for civilians. It takes about 18 to 24 months. As for their French language skills, nothing more than the 600 to 800 words required at the end of their 4-month training is demanded of them. Their motivations are often the same: the prestige of France and the love for a country they serve. Some of the naturalized soldiers also keep their birth nationality. Others are forced to give it up if their homeland doesn't accept dual citizenship.

There is also another, less common way for them to obtain French nationality. Since 1999, France has been using Article 7 of the "Code du legionnaire" — "never leave your wounded and your dead behind" — through a law stating that every member of the Legion can become French if they lost blood in the process. Since 2000, 19 wounded legionnaires have obtained citizenship through this entitlement. If a soldier is killed in action, his children under 18 can also obtain it. Since 1831, almost 38,000 legionnaires have been killed in action and more than 40,000 have been wounded since 1940.

foreign legion_france_army_légion étrangère

French Foreign Legion in Orange Photo: Jean-Louis Zimmermann/Flickr

Hand on heart

In the Hungarian army since 2001, Corporal Attila, 35, "always wanted to join the French Foreign Legion" and took the leap in 2009. He "always had a French heart," and is a longtime fan of the country's culture and movies, especially those of Gérard Depardieu, he recalls, smiling. But last year, after eight years of service, he officially became French during a ceremony at the Senate. He also kept his Hungarian nationality. "In Hungary, I'm home, and France is my Home," he says, with his hand on his heart.

His journey is like his brother's, who has been a legionnaire for 18 years and "who became French, along with all his children," Attila said. Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, New Caledonia… He goes from one battlefield to the other, like his brothers in arms, rifle in his hand and… a horn under his arm, as he is also a musician. He says he is always happy to go back to France, which gave him everything: "My job, and my wife!"

This is my country

Sergueï is 32 years old but he has a kid's smile and shining blue eyes. He is "proud" and "touched" to have paraded on the Champs Elysées and Luxembourg Gardens. He applied for citizenship last July. Now a commando instructor, he came to France in 2005 to enlist in the Legion from his Russian homeland and never went back. His life is here, near his Brazilian wife and his children, who were born in France. "I started from the bottom when I arrived, and I learned everything here," he explained. "This is my country. Everything I have now is thanks to the Legion."

In my blood

Sgt. Cristian, 28, thought it through: he wants to become French and is therefore set to send his request. He "adores wine and French cheese" and wants to specialize in it when he retires. The soldier had been serving in the Legion for seven years but knew that for his fiancée, who still lives in his native Romania, life would be better in France. Especially "when it comes to schools," he says, adding that he identifies with French culture. His to-do list includes a visit to the north of France as he has always been told that "it's super nice" and that people are welcoming. He also wants to go back to Guiana, where he already lived for two years. On July 14, he marched on the Champs Elysées with his comrades of the 4th Regiment. He was emotional but not stressed. He explains, rolling the "r" in French: "It's the job, we know how to do it, we're working."

A mortar shell

Mariusz Nowakowski, who is from Poland, acquired French nationality in 1993. It's thanks to him that the law with the special clause about gaining citizenship through blood lost for France came into being. In February 1993, when he was 23, he was deployed as a legionnaire in Sarajevo and lost his leg because of a mortar shell. He was in a coma for weeks. In May 1993, François Léotard, the then defense minister, visited him and asked him what he wanted. No money, no medals, just "becoming French", he said. He remembers "being scared of having to leave the Legion and France" despite feeling like "he had done something for the country" and "feeling like a Frenchman." He is now a father and works for Képi blanc, the Legion's magazine, where he is in charge of subscriptions.

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Ideas

Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.


In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.

https://thewire.in/culture/re-reading-rumi-in-the-time-of-the-taliban
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