Paris, France – On Friday, November 27, several buses passed through the roads of Vincennes, French flags fluttering from their windshields. The cold winter day marked the national tribute called for by President Francois Hollande commemorating the 130 victims of the attacks on Paris two weeks before.
Vincennes, is a city on the outskirts of Paris. CIRFA, the French army recruitment agency is based here in a 19th-century stone fort, Fort Neuf de Vincennes. The compound hosts a scene of constant comings and goings: uniformed soldiers, military forces in training, and military vehicles bearing the red triangular Vigipirate logo of France’s national security alert system.
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A group of young men and women arrive at the compound on this cloudy day. They are not acquainted with each other and have little in common besides their aspiration to join the ranks of the uniformed soldiers on the other side of the tall, iron gates before them.
Shivering as they walk along the cobblestone path, they make their way towards the entrance. Someone presses a large button to ring the interphone at the gate. As a crackling voice comes through the speaker, the youngsters hesitate before each replying: “Hello. I’d like some information about joining the army, sir.”
Restoring a sense of security
Since the attacks, requests to join the army have reportedly tripled throughout the country, going from 500 applications a day to nearly 1,500.
The French government had planned to decrease the number of military personnel previous to the Paris attacks, even after the Charlie Hebdo attack. But in light of last month’s events, authorities decided to maintain current numbers.
On November 16, President Francois Hollande addressed the French Congress in Versailles announcing that 5,000 new positions in the gendarmerie, a military offshoot, and the civil police would be created in one of the first measures to be announced in response to the attacks.
At the recruitment base, 30-year-old Mathias plans to enlist as a reservist. He admits that his attraction to the army is likely an “emotional reaction” to the recent attacks. But regardless of the reasons behind his resolve to join, like the others standing with him in the courtyard in Vincennes that day, he wants to feel that he is “defending French values”.
“What young people put forward when they come is the will to be useful,” says Colonel Bruno Bert, the manager of recruitment and selection in the Paris area.
“They’ve been seeing the role of the army with the Sentinelle Operation,” Bert says of the operation that deployed several thousand soldiers around schools and cultural buildings after January’s Charlie Hebdo attacks. Fully armed and donned in combat uniform, the soldiers sought to restore a sense of security as Parisians felt increasingly threatened in train stations and other public spaces.
After the Paris attacks on November 13, the French president vowed to increase the military’s presence in the capital, declaring France to be in a “state of war”. Ten thousand soldiers were deployed in the city, and according to the army, 15,000 more people will be recruited by the end of this year.
According to Bert, this new trend of people signing up for military service goes beyond Paris and its immediate vicinity. Several regions of the countryside are witnessing a similar enthusiasm, according to the army communication services.
Bert points out that after the January attacks, there was a similar spike in applications, though, he notes, the numbers were “not as significant as [they are] now”.
The allure of the military
Several factors account for the surge in recruitment according to military personnel at the Vincennes recruitment centre.
There has been an increase in the airtime of action-packed, blockbuster movie-like army service recruitment videos on television broadcasts, during movie previews, and through other outlets that appeal to young adults.
But, recruiters say that a sense of ‘prestige’ and exclusivity associated with being part of the military has contributed to the allure of military service the most.
Antoine*, a 21-year-old parachutist, confirms this sentiment. Smiling, he explains that his parents are “proud” of his decision to join the military.
Bert believes that it is patriotism and the notion of serving their country that inspire most of those who join the army.
“I think we have an army that is particularly efficient; it recently led to some beautiful operations. Young recruits have given their maximum in the latest interventions, like Operation Serval,” he says in reference to the military intervention in Mali between 2013 and 2014.
Many army cadets choose the military over the civil police as part of the Vigipirate antiterrorism patrol units, which stations soldiers in critical areas on the ground.
“We can have better weapons, we can protect more efficiently, especially now that we know that danger is everywhere,” says Arthur, a soldier in his 20s.
The hopefuls are a diverse group in terms of education, experience, and background. One woman in the group, 18-year-old Ana holds a hairdressing diploma and is seeking a dog-handling position in the army.
She says she had made the decision to join the army before the latest attacks, but that the latest cemented her decision.
“I am not afraid,” she says. “I would go on the ground without hesitation.”
For Ana, Charlie Hebdo had a role in reinforcing her resolve. Whether it’s one death or 100, France has been hit, and people need to react, she argues. She doesn’t question France’s involvement in Syria, which has intensified in the weeks following the attacks. If France needs to defend itself, she believes it is necessary for the country to strike.
Otherwise, “we should just dig our own graves”, she says.
A common mould
Fourteen-year-old Adel arrives at the centre with a big grin and his father by his side. He is very excited. Academic requirements in France mandate that at some point during their high school years, students must complete internships. Adel had already chosen the army for his internship. The recent attacks have given him an “even bigger incentive to do this”.
Hamid, Adel’s father, is a Moroccan migrant who came to France 26 years ago. He says he and his family are not afraid of the increased Islamophobia, and says people who generalise and equate Islam with terrorism are just “ignorant”.
If France is going to war, he says, everybody is ready to take up weapons to defend the country against those he calls “gangsters” and “thugs”.
Some soldiers at the recruitment centre are sceptical of the onslaught of volunteers. Jacques*, who is a parachutist, has been in the army for a year now. He questions the motivations and capabilities of all the new candidates. “If they really wanted to join the army, they would have done it before the attacks,” Jacques insists.
But Bert doesn’t share his worry and explains that all the soldiers go through the same training and “are going to learn the values of the job”. There are a series of psychological, physical, and endurance tests a candidate must pass before being selected. “Everybody is going through a common mould.”
Before entering the recruitment centre, Ana is keen to make it known that this is not an easy decision: Army contracts are for a duration of two to 10 years – years that are dedicated almost entirely to service.
“Joining is not something you can take lightly. It is a choice,” she smiles. “Like a tattoo.”
*Some names have been changed at the request of those interviewed.