A scaled-down version of Emmanuel Macron’s plan to restore compulsory national service will be tested next year, but military involvement will be minimal after army chiefs dismissed the scheme as an extravagant “folly”.
The top brass feared the original plan for young people to serve in the armed forces for one month would offer little benefit while eating into the already stretched defence budget.
They were also concerned that officers would be distracted from operational missions such as protecting France from terrorists and fighting Islamists in Africa. Mr Macron first mooted the idea in an apparent attempt to woo Right-wing voters during last year’s election campaign, when security was a major concern after a string of terror attacks.
But he has now shifted the focus to community rather than military service. Generals have welcomed the decision to transfer oversight of the project from the defence ministry to the education ministry.
Military involvement will be minimal and it will have little impact on the defence budget.
France abolished military service under a conservative president, Jacques Chirac, in 1997, but some 3,000 teenagers will take part in the month-long trial during the school holidays next year.
They will live together for two weeks, but instead of being lodged in former army barracks as first planned, they will be accommodated in holiday camps and school dormitories.
The scheme will be extended gradually to include all 16-year-olds by 2026. They will spend the first two weeks learning first aid, how to use a compass, read maps and inform emergency services of a natural disaster by radio.
Teachers and military reservists will supervise the youngsters, with limited involvement of serving members of the armed forces.
“This will bring together teenagers from different backgrounds and give them a shared experience that will help to forge a sense of national identity and responsibility.”
The cost will be “far less” than an estimate of £1.5 billion per year reported by French newspapers in June, the official said.
Opposition politicians said it was typical of Mr Macron, who said he wanted to rule like Jupiter, king of the Roman gods, to announce a grand scheme only to be forced to back down.
Lydia Guirous, spokeswoman for the centre-Right Republicans, said: “When this government proposes something, the mountain often gives birth to a mouse. Two parliamentary reports have revealed how difficult it will be to put this into practice.”
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Ms Guirous said the government should be focussing on fulfilling Mr Macron’s pledge to reduce unemployment. Instead, unemployment rose slightly in the third quarter of this year, official figures showed last week.
Generals described the scheme as an expensive “folly” even before Mr Macron was elected.
A Senate report a month after the election said it would be “a colossal effort in terms of human resources, which we fear would absorb the energy of the armed forces.”
Teenagers wishing to extend the experience will have the option of spending three to twelve months serving with reserve armed forces, the fire brigade or community groups. The reduced military component is far from Mr Macron’s original election pledge to give all young people a taste of life in the armed forces.
However, Gabriel Attal, the junior defence minister in charge of the project, insisted that it remained faithful to the president’s vision.
“This is not a return to military service, but soldiers will participate fully, as supervisors and instructors, with their proven organisational capability and ability to provide a national framework with working methods that facilitate the inclusion of all," he said.
The scheme has been criticised for lacking focus.
Olivier Vial, head of the conservative students’ union UNI, told Le Figaro newspaper: “The risk is that it will turn into a huge party for teenagers… while diluting the resources that could have gone into the reserve armed forces.” The Left-wing sixth formers’ union Fidl argues that compulsory service is unacceptable.
Its vice-president, Marouane Majrar, said: “Commitment should be voluntary. If not, it becomes naff. To make it attractive, the government is selling it as free training in first aid and the Highway Code. That’s what we want for all young people, but without the military context.”
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