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France's Macron urges armed forces to get behind national service

French President Emmanuel Macron (and Chief of the Defence Staff Thierry Burkhard during the Bastille Day military parade on the Champs-Elysees avenue in Paris on July 14, 2022. AFP - BERTRAND GUAY

French President Emmanuel Macron has asked the French military to do more to bring on Universal National Service (SNU) for young people, in order to mobilise "the whole of French society" to face modern challenges. But the armed forces need convincing.

"I ask you to do more by giving our reserves new ambition and by investing more and better in the great SNU project I'm backing," Macron said in a speech at the Ministry of the Armed Forces on the eve of the Bastille Day military parade.

"It's not a question of militarising young people and even less so society," he said, "but at a time when the nation needs to rediscover the deep meaning of its history [...] the Republic needs you to do more."

SNU was one of Macron’s promises during his 2017 election campaign. A pilot programme involving 2,000 volunteers aged 15 to 17 was launched in 2019, nearly two decades after France phased out conscription for men.

The 2020 programme was cancelled due to the health crisis, but last summer some 15,000 young people took part in "cohesion courses" throughout France.

This year, SNU aims to reach around 50,000 youngsters.

Sarah El Hairy, named State Secretary for Youth and National Service, is charged with upscaling the programme. It will ultimately be mandatory for all male and female citizens aged 16 to 25.

Transmission and discipline

The war in Ukraine and France's withdrawal from Mali is forcing France to rethink how it deploys its forces.

Macron said he wanted the army to help ensure SNU's "full deployment" – around 800,000 youngsters per year.

The scheme lasts for a month and can be performed in both civil and military facilities.

Teenagers begin with a two-week "integration phase" living communally outside their home region where they learn skills like first aid and map reading.

They then have to complete a two-week assignment, either with a charity, local government or uniform-wearing corps such as the army.

"These training schemes are opportunities for the young people you are entrusted with,” Macron said.

"It is an essential path for the coming months and years ... We must move forward."

Youths wearing the official outfit of the "Service national universel" (SNU) attend its official presentation on April 18, 2019 at the Education ministry in Paris. FRANCOIS GUILLOT / AFP

Reticence

SNU does not have the full support of the armed forces, who are occupied on a number of fronts.

France has not sent soldiers to Ukraine but French troops and fighter pilots are present in other eastern European countries such as Poland, Romania and Estonia.

And while France is completely withdrawing its troops from Mali, its Barkhane forces remain active in anti-terror operations in the Sahel region, notably in Niger and Burkina Faso.

The armed forces are concerned about SNU's potential cost and the challenge of accommodating and supervising hundreds of thousands of young people a year.

The government underlines the additional support it has given its armies.

Under Macron, it has committed to increasing armed forces personnel by 6,000 from 2019-2025.

French military spending has gradually increased to reach 41 billion euros this year, and is scheduled to hit 50 billion euros in 2025.

But the armed forces are not yet won over.

"The armies don't want to be used for something that would take them too far away from their mission," Armed Forces Minister Sébastien Lecornu told Le Figaro daily on Wednesday.

"But if the SNU is a way of cultivating a culture of resilience, learning first aid, having a military culture, the armies will be more open to it."

Macron is the first French president not to have been called up to serve. He came of age after the compulsory 10 months of military service for school-leaving men was abolished by ex-president Jacques Chirac in 1997.

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