If Your Life Is A Total Disaster–Can You Still Join the French Foreign Legion?

Yes, You Can. It’s good to know some things don’t change.

“Whatever your origins, nationality or religion might be, whatever qualifications you may or may not have, whatever your social or professional status might be, whether you are married or single, the French Foreign Legion offers you a chance to start a new life…”

From the website of the Legion which is here:


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Truly striking photograph of a young legionnaire moments after he enlisted.


photo by Rineke Dijkstra

Above: Rineke Dijkstra photographed a 18-year-old legionnaire named Olivier Silva, minutes after he had been accepted into the elite military unit.

She photographed him six more times over the course of his arduous Foreign Legion training.   “The idea was to follow a soldier, someone who comes in soft and young, then turns tough,” the photographer explained, ”but I’m really talking about a mental change, not a physical one.” It’s not so much the change of uniform, the chest hairs or the stronger biceps that matter. It’s the hardening of Olivier’s look, the realization that he has acquired authority, assurance and control.”

You can read more about the fascinating Dutch photographer, Rineke Dijkstra, who conceived and executed this project of following and photographing the young legionnaire and see more of her photographs here :


And you can purchase her magnificent photographs from the Marian Goodman Gallery here:


or visit Marian Goodman’s galleries in New York or Paris. Addresses and contact info at her homepage here:


(I have no connection with any of these people and have never met them)


As of January 2014, the Foreign Legion had a total strength of 7,699 men. Of this total, 413 are officers and 1,741 are NCOs. The remainder, 5545 are legionnaires divided into 11 regiments.

90% of the officers are from the regular French Army but 10% rose from the ranks. I think this is relatively new since I recall that some years ago I read about the Legion and at that time all the officers were seconded from the French Army and the highest rank a legionnaire could aspire to was sergeant-major.

As you might imagine, there are men from 136  countries serving in the French Foreign Legion including, I imagine, American citizens. French citizens can serve in the Legion but I have the impression they need a really good reason since there are many elite units in the French Army they can join.

You can join the Legion under a “declared name” or your legal name. After three years of satisfactory service, you can apply for French citizenship although this is not guaranteed for those serving under a nom de guerre. Theoretically this is to prevent those who are in trouble with the authorities in their country from becoming French but I have a feeling there is a lot of looking the other way.



Legionnaires wearing their traditional white kepi

photo courtesy of Wikimedia commons

Until you become an NCO, all legionnaires must wear their uniform at all times. They cannot wear civilian clothes. Their uniform is distinctive since legionnaires are the only men in the French army allowed to wear the white kepi. The Legionnaires are also the only soldiers in the French Army which must wear shirts with sharp creases ironed into them.

Finally, and this is an unusual tradition I have read about before: la Légion étrangère marches at 88 steps a minute. The standard for French soldiers is 132 steps a minute. Hence, the Legion always beings up the end of any French military parade.

There is a hitch if you are an American and serve in the army of a foreign power: your US citizenship can be forfeit under various circumstances according to the information in the US passport. (Your passport actually belongs to the US Government–something I just read when I checked the previous sentence).

In World War Two, Americans who went to Great Britain to serve in the Royal Air Force or the British Army, took a major risk of losing their citizenship if they swore loyalty to the British Crown. The men got around this in various ways.

In Citizens of London by Lynne Olson, she describes an anxious moment early in the war, when five young graduates of from Dartmouth and Harvard were about to be sworn into their regiment as officers. Although the U.S. Government had let slip that it would not prosecute American citizens for serving in British or Commonwealth forces, it was still illegal which much concerned these five young men.

Present at the ceremony was the new American Ambassador, Gil Winnat. He came up with the idea, on the spur of the moment, that the five Americans swear allegiance to the Honorary Colonel of the Regiment, who happened to be King George VI. This was done. What was even more special about this moment, was that these five young officers were joining the 60th Regiment of the King’s Royal Rifle Corps.

This regiment traced its beginnings to a regiment originally formed in colonial America to fight in the French and Indian War. The name given the regiment at its founding was the 62nd Royal Americans.

But back to the French Foreign Legion. They trace themselves back to the Royal Foreign Legion of 1815 and yes, you can join although you need to be in good shape. You also should know that the Legion never leaves its dead, wounded on the battlefield and never, ever surrenders its weapons. I think this last one means you have to fight to the death if surrounded by a superior force.


beau geste


Ray Milland, Gary Cooper and Robert Preston

Still from the 1939 movie “Beau Geste”

“Gary Cooper takes the title role as Michael “Beau” Geste, with Ray Milland and Robert Preston as his two brothers. The story is set in the pre-First World War period, as the three all run away from their English home to join the French foreign legion after the mysterious theft of a rare jewel.”

Above info and photo from the excellent website:


Anecdotal evidence exists which suggests that a number of ex-Waffen SS joined the Foreign Legion at the end of World War Two and fought in Southeast Asia. It was an easy decision to make since, once again based on solely on anecdotal evidence, the French gave Waffen SS troopers the opportunity to join the Legion or be shot.

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Charles McCain

Charles McCain is a Washington DC based freelance journalist and novelist. He is the author of "An Honorable German," a World War Two naval epic. You can read more of his work on his website: http://charlesmccain.com/