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22 October 2018updated 08 Jul 2021 2:08pm

Why the French are revolting against Emmanuel Macron’s national service programme

By Pauline Bock

No one’s serious at 17, French poet Arthur Rimbaud once wrote. Could Emmanuel Macron prove him wrong? The president is putting French youth to the test with a new programme fulfilling his campaign promise to reintroduce national service: the universal national service (SNU) in which 16 and 17-year-olds will serve for a month. Its purpose? To “promote the concept of commitment and to foster a sense of national unity around common values”.

A more inclusive and socially-minded version of traditional French military service (women are conscripted too), which was abolished in 1997 (the final conscripts left in 2002), the SNU is currently in its test phase. The first sessions started last week, with 2,038 young volunteers welcomed for two weeks in 13 centres across France.

The SNU day begins at 6:30am with a daily ceremony of flag-raising and “Marseillaise” chanting. The uniform-clad teenagers are then invited to take part in various community activities, all aimed at enhancing the participants’ “social and territorial cohesion”, their “understanding of the national defense and security stakes”, and their “culture of commitment”, according to the SNU’s website (which adds: “the SNU is not the restoration of the military service, suspended in 1997”).

“The goal of the SNU is that you learn as much from the activities and workshops as from one another,” Gabriel Attal, the French minister tasked with developing the programme, told the first volunteers at the launch of the pilot on 17 June. Sibeth Ndiaye, the government’s spokesperson, added that the SNU was “an incredible chance” that she could only have “dreamed of” when she was 15 (despite being the child of a diplomat and a high-ranking judge).

Not all teenagers may agree with her. For now, the programme is voluntary, but it will become mandatory for all youths in a few years. All will be required to attend the month-long first phase (two weeks in residency and another two weeks in smaller groups). A longer, second period of training in various sectors (police, defence, environment) will remain optional, offering “credits” to its volunteers (such as easier access to university place or driver’s licence, and possible remuneration).

The government has warned that those who don’t complete the programme will suffer sanctions, such as being banned from taking their baccalauréat (A-levels) and their driving test. This will, in turn, complicate their professional life: the bac is a prerequisite for attending university and many jobs require an ability to drive. Faced with such sanctions, young people will have to suddenly become very serious at 17, in defiance of Rimbaud’s rhyme, or risk compromising their whole future.

It did not take long for the SNU launch to spark controversy. Firstly because, with a bill around €1.6bn, the programme’s cost is substantial, especially compared to the €70m that the government recently allocated at the 11th hour to ease the emergency service crisis across the country. Workers from more than 130 services are currently striking in protest at budget cuts and deteriorating working conditions. Shouldn’t struggling hospitals come before a well-meant, but hardly urgent, youth programme?

More criticism followed when young volunteers at the SNU centre, in Evreux, Normandy, fainted by the dozen having been forced to stand under the blazing sun for the duration of an official event on their second day of service. In total, almost 30 teenagers needed medical assistance, with two severely affected and one evacuated by the fire department. “It’s not normal to leave 15 and 16-year-olds under the sun for an hour and a half,” a medical student who assisted with first aid told the French media.

But the authorities were unrepentant: the “light hot flushes”, the youths suffered, they said, were not due to the heat but to “a form of emotion linked to the solemn nature of the ceremony”.

This incident may prove only a slight bump on the SNU’s glorious road, but such a lack of seriousness is troubling, not least as the programme’s own timetable requires children to wake at 6:30am and go to sleep at 10:30pm. Under French child labour law, the volunteers are entitled to at least 12 hours of consecutive rest — a rule not respected by the intense programme.

When the first photos emerged from the pilot programme, many on the French left, criticised the austere military appearance of a national service that, supposedly,  is “not a restoration” of its abolished predecessor. On social media, some went as far as to compare the uniformed youth’s ordered ranks to those of the fictional students in the German film Die Welle (The Wave), in which an educational project spirals out of control and breeds a fascist student movement.

Unlike the former French national service, no exemptions from SNU will be permitted. Conscripts used to be able to choose between the military programme and an alternative “civil” service, for instance a year-long stint in a public institution.

Those who chose the second option did so as official “conscientious objectors” —  a status the SNU doesn’t offer. French minister Gabriel Attal confirmed that “it will not be possible to be exempted from the SNU”, adding: “that is the sense of the word ‘universal’.”

Parents have already written op-eds calling for exemptions to be permitted and warning that the SNU conflicts with the education they wish to give their children. An online petition, which has gathered around 2,000 signatures so far, is calling for Macron to allocate the SNU budget to “real education and social policies”. The page declares: “The best investment for the youth is school, not uniforms.”

Yet everyone, including the government, might have missed the obvious: teenagers spending weeks in close proximity might lead to more flirting than social commitment. A columnist jokingly referred to the SNU as “Tinder IRL” and observed: “The government has just opened the biggest national flirting space.” It seems that Rimbaud’s rhyme might prevail.  

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