Why do I have to join the French Foreign Legion under an assumed name?

By: William Harris  | 
Soldiers from the French Foreign Legion consulting a map along the southern Lebanese border. France sent Legionnaires to help rebuild Lebanon after the Hezbollah-Israel war in 2006. See more soldier pictures.
Thomas Coex/AFP/Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • The French Foreign Legion was established in 1831 by King Louis-Philippe to handle the influx of radicals into France, allowing foreign soldiers to serve under a foreign legion separate from the French army.
  • Originally, the legion offered a haven for individuals with minor criminal records or those seeking a new identity, enforcing a rule of "anonymat" (anonymity) to protect recruits' identities, a practice that continues today (albeit with more selective recruitment).
  • While initially formed to divert potential threats away from France and aid in colonial efforts in Algeria, the French Foreign Legion has evolved into a selective military unit that still accepts foreign recruits under the condition of anonymity.

For years, young men have been running away from home to join the army. Some are hoping to leave behind disadvantaged conditions. Others are trying to escape a scandalous situation. Either way, they see the army as a place for redemption -- a place to start over and earn respect. While many military forces acknowledge this reality, one uses it as a recruiting hook. That force is the French Foreign Legion, a unique mercenary unit in the French army that advertises itself as "the school of second chance."

A defining characteristic of the legion is its rule of anonymat (French for "anonymity"), which says that all Legionnaires must give up their civil identity upon enlisting. With their old identities set ­aside, recruits join the legion under a declared ident­ity -- a new name that they use during their first year of service. At the end of the first year, a Legionnaire may reclaim his old name through a process known as "military regularization of the situation," in which fresh identity papers are obtained from the person's home country. Alternatively, a Legionnaire can choose to spend his entire five-year career under his declared identity.


­This practice might seem strange until you consider exactly how the legion operates. Unlike typical national armies, which recruit their own citizens, this military force only recruits foreigners. That's why it's called the French Foreign Legion. Any French citizens who want to join must change their nationality to another French-speaking country.

In many ways­, Legionnaires are shedding their former national identities for a new French identity. Not only that, many men (the legion doesn't accept women) who join have questionable backgrounds that they're trying to leave behind. The declared identity rule levels the playing field for all Legionnaires, whether they have a checkered past or not.

­The unique customs of the legion owe much to the tumultuous history of 19th-century France. On the next page, we'll look briefly at this history to gain some more insight into how and why declared identity became such a defining characteristic of the French Foreign Legion.


History of the French Foreign Legion

King Louis-Philippe had a hand in designing the uniforms on those French Foreign Legion soldiers parading down the Champs-Elysees in 2007.
AFP/Getty Images

In 1830, in what is known commonly as the July Revolution, King Louis-Philippe replaced King Charles X on the throne after the fall of the Bourbon monarchy at the hands of Parisian radicals. Their actions galvanized many Europeans, who wanted to spread the revolution's ideals of liberty and equality to their own countries. Unfortunately, they weren't as successful, and a flood of zealots, hoping to find refuge among like-minded revolutionaries, spilled into France.

Although King Louis-Philippe ascended to the throne as a result of radicalism, he was troubled by the influx of radicals into France. Many were soldiers or at least soldierlike, and the king believed they were dangerous to his monarchy. Diverting them to the military seemed like a natural solution, except foreign soldiers were no longer allowed to join the French army. The new king could get around this loophole if his country had a légion étrangère -- a foreign legion.


On March 9, 1831, King Louis-Philippe laid out the plan for his new army in eight articles. The articles described all of the basics, from terms of service to the color of the Legionnaire uniform.

Although the rule of anonymat wasn't defined specifically, other guidelines that would make anonymity desirable were. For example, the sixth article stated that all potential Legionnaires should have a birth certificate, a certificate of "good life manners" and a certificate from a military authority attesting to a soldier's ability to deliver good service. But the seventh article amended this by allowing legion officers to use their discretion when evaluating recruits who came with neither a valid birth certificate nor a certificate of good manners. In the early days, these officers did little or no background checking, which made the legion attractive to criminals, vagrants and other social outcasts.

That was fine with the king, who planned to send the newly formed legion to Algeria, an African territory that France had begun to colonize in 1830. This served two purposes: It removed the potentially dangerous revolutionaries from French soil, and it allowed France to push its colonization efforts. For the next 120 years or so, the French Foreign Legion and Algeria were practically synonymous. In fact, the legion remained headquartered in Algeria until 1962, when the independent Algerian government demanded its withdrawal.

Today, nearly 200 years later, the legion still recruits foreign soldiers and those who might be considered undesirable elements. In the early days, the legion took just about anyone who looked healthy and was willing to fight for France. Now the legion is more selective. Minor criminal records are overlooked, but not serious offenses, such as murder. Deserters from other armies are also unwelcome. And yet the rule of anonymat remains, as does the legion's fierce commitment to protect the identity of its recruits.

Soldier on to the next page for more information on the French Foreign Legion and other military topics.


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  • Adams, Cecil. "Did people really run away to join the French Foreign Legion?" The Straight Dope. 10/19/2001. (8/30/08) http://www.straightdope.com/columns/011019.html
  • Cooper, Nikki. "The French Foreign Legion." University of Portsmouth/France 1815-2003. 6/7/2004. (8/30/08) http://www.port.ac.uk/special/france1815to2003/chapter3/ interviews/filetodownload,20692,en.pdf
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