President Emmanuel Macron’s new-look version of national service began on Sunday as an initial group of 2,000 teenagers reported to centres across France for a two- week programme intended to promote national unity.
France abolished compulsory military service in 1996, but bringing back national service was a key campaign pledge by Mr Macron. The updated “Universal National Service” is mainly civic but has a military component.
The first group are volunteers, but it will eventually become obligatory for all 16-year-olds, who will be forced to give up their mobile phones for most of the time they serve.
Soldiers and youth workers will train them on how to respond to a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.
For the next two weeks, the teenagers will rise at 7am and take part in a daily flag-raising ceremony, saluting and singing La Marseillaise, the national anthem. They will wear a uniform for ceremonies and a fluorescent vest for civil protection exercises.
They will be instructed in self-defence and will take different ‘modules’ on topics such as national defence, sustainable development and French values. Evening debates will be held on topics such as gender discrimination and racism.
They will only be allowed to use their mobiles during one hour of free time each day.
Gabriel Attal, a junior minister for youth and education, said national service would become a “rite of passage” for teenagers, who would gain a deeper understanding of French values and learn skills such as “how to set up an emergency first aid post or organise a search for a missing person”.
A day-long exercise at the end of the programme will simulate a serious crisis such as a motorway pile-up or a nuclear accident, he said.
Participants will also take part in “an experience which can be likened to military training, but without handling weapons,” he added. “In the Ardennes, for example, they will follow an assault course at a military base. In French Guiana, they will go on a commando raid in the jungle for two days.”
The programme appears popular so far, with more volunteers than available places in the first group.
Nicolas, 16, a volunteer from the northern city of Lille, said he hoped “to do a lot of sport” and get a taste of life as a soldier.