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

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

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.

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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
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  • Moore, Molly. "Legendary Force Updates Its Image." WashingtonPost.com. 5/13/2007. (8/30/08) http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/12/AR2007051201478_pf.html