Nearly two decades after France phased out conscription for men, some 2,000 teenagers on Sunday began a pilot programme for a new national civic service, a pet project of French President Emmanuel Macron.
For a fortnight, the 15- and 16-year-olds will leave home for training in first aid and other basic skills, followed later by another two weeks of volunteering.
Macron caused surprise on the campaign trail in 2017 by promising to introduce a month-long compulsory national service, saying he wanted to give girls and boys "a direct experience of military life".
The proposal got a cool response from the army, which baulked at the prospect of having to put millions of teens through their paces, prompting the government to come back with proposals for a compulsory civic service instead.
Some 2,000 youngsters, including 50 disabled teens, were chosen out of 4,000 volunteers for the first part of the trial, which started Sunday at boarding schools, holiday villages and university campuses around the country.
The group includes high school students, drop-outs, apprentices and vocational school trainees.
Each volunteer will leave home for another region for the two weeks, during which time they will be required to wear navy uniforms and sing the "Marseillaise", France's national anthem, every morning.
Described as an "integration phase", teens will be taught first aid, map reading, emergency response for different scenarios and other skills.
Imbued with a military ethos, the national service centres, managed by a “chief of brigade”, will each feature five houses of 10 young people, Gabriel Attal, secretary of state to the minister of national education told Le Parisien. Although each house will have an adult supervisor, the teens will be responsible for dividing up tasks and taking care of the houses.
One of the most important objectives for Attal is getting young people out of their habitual familial, social and regional surroundings, and to open their eyes to new experiences.
One unwelcome new experience might be the ban on mobile phones, except during a single hour of downtime in the evenings. But it’s all part of the plan to get the youngsters to engage with each other. After dinner each day, they will debate different social issues. “For example, discrimination based on sexual orientation and disability or radicalisation," said Attal. "On Monday, after the French women’s football match, there will be a discussion of gender equality.”
The teens will also train to respond to a variety of emergency situations.
“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. At the end of the stint, they will simulate a crisis scenario, like a traffic pileup or a nuclear accident.
A second two-week phase, later this summer or during the coming school year, involves work on a "collective project", such as volunteering with a charity or local government.
Rite of passage
Macron has billed the service as a way to develop patriotism and social cohesion in a country battling deep divisions between left and right, rich and poor, and religious and non-religious.
The programme, which will be written into the constitution, will be rolled out over the next seven years, targeting about 800,000 youngsters per year and eventually becoming compulsory.
Attal, who has been put in charge of the new programme, hopes it will become a rite of passage for French youth.
The government has yet to announce an official budget for the national programme, but the 12-day live-in part of this year’s pilot programme will cost €2000 per participant. Extrapolated to 800,000 yearly participants, the programme would cost at least €1.6 billion.
Opponents of the programme, including some student organisations, are critical of the cost, saying the money is needed in the French education system.
Student groups have also questioned whether a two-week programme will really help “national cohesion”.
“We share the government’s concerns about the lack of social integration but we think that universal national service is not the right response,” Orlane François, head of the umbrella FAGE student union, told AFP. “Two weeks in barracks would appeal to some segment of the population nostalgic for military service, but not the young people who are our primary concern.”
France already requires all citizens to participate in a one-day "Defence and Citizenship" course when they turn 18, which includes a presentation of the country's military forces and a French language test.
Macron is the first French president not to have been called up to serve, having come of age after the compulsory 10 months of military service for school-leaving men was abolished by ex-president Jacques Chirac in 1997, with the last conscripts discharged in 2001.
Macron has said his aim is to give young people "causes to defend and battles to fight in the social, environmental and cultural domains".
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)