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Je ne regrette rien - the romance and legacy of anonymity for the French Foreign Legionnaire

posted by:Jean Nelson // 07:19 PM // November 14, 2005 // ID TRAIL MIX

So you want to volunteer your life, limb and peace of mind to help the less fortunate in crisis situations but can you do so without sacrificing some privacy, especially as part of the volunteer recruitment process? Will your MD offer an opinion on whether you are up psychologically for the rigours of the job and sufficiently emotionally stable? And why stop at international volunteer positions—why not require a physician’s assessment and disclosure of medical and psychiatric history for all manner of positions and roles with extreme conditions—say being a parent or a —Prime Minister? Is there still a job out there where one can be an anonymous adventurer?

These thoughts came to my mind when I was asked to provide feedback on some draft application forms for an international humanitarian recruitment cause. One such document included a letter from the candidate’s physician in which the doc was asked to assess whether the candidate had any “underlying psychological or dependency problems that would be adversely affected by extreme conditions?”

My first reaction—who would pass muster since biking to work through rush hour traffic without your first caffeine jolt of the day can be considered a “dependency problem….adversely affected by extreme conditions!” That being said, the forms provoked some free wheeling thoughts about other measures of psychological stability in various positions and our or the evaluator’s “right” to know this sensitive personal information.

Think about John McCain, erstwhile American Presidential nominee and former P.O.W in Vietnam. During the 1999-2000 Republican leadership race, rumours flied about his psychological fitness and alleged shortness of temper. In response, McCain’s campaign team released some 1500 pages of medical records . At the time and subsequently, his gesture seemed desperate, a distasteful baring of what had been private, another instance of the juggernaut of the electoral process and yet another example of the decreasing zone of privacy in public life.

But how does the French Foreign Legion fit in to this perhaps familiar lament? And what do Presidential candidate psychological profiles and international altruistic volunteers have to do with international volunteers for less humanitarian ends?

Well, the Legion is fabled in history, literature, film and culture (including pop culture since Foghorn Leghorn and Bugs Bunny of Looney Tunes Fame also famously joined the ranks!) as a place where the volunteer finds anonymity in the “extreme conditions” of the Legion wars, a place to take on an assumed identity, no questions asked and maybe even find some romance with other disaffected souls. Gary Cooper, for instance, in Marlene Dietrich’s first American film, 1930’s “Morocco”, played a disenchanted adventurer with the plainsong and clearly assumed moniker of “Tom Brown” while Marlene was the nightclub chanteuse with the equally fictitious name of “Amy Jolie”. Apart from the portrayal of the Legion, this film is worth seeing for all manner of reasons, not the least of which is the vision of Marlene in tailored tux kiss a female patron of the seedy desert boite squarely on the lips or the final shot of Marlene as the lovelorn following her legionnaire beau into the desert in her filmy nightclub wear and heels. .. but I digress.

Now apart from Gary Cooper or Bugs, could someone in the twenty first century still anonymously join the French Foreign Legion? Frankly, as I began my rather desultory web surfing, I was half-convinced that the Legion must have joined the ranks of the vehemently “non-anonymous”. Elementary school report cards and doctor’s notes were probably de rigueur. So imagine my surprise when I came across the official web site of French Foreign Legion (available in a dozen or so languages) and found the opposite---Bugs can still be Bugs X in the Legion today since it is possible to enlist under a “declared identity” or pseudonym.

Because it is truly fascinating stuff, I would like to repeat some of questions and answers on identity, anonymity and nationality from the web site.

1. Am I obliged to join under a declared identity?
Yes. This provision was initiated to benefit all those who join the Legion because they want to forget their past and “turn over a new leaf”. It still exists, even if the vast majority of Legion candidates nowadays have no particular problems and our investigation techniques permit as to eliminate any “undesirable elements”. The “declared identity” exists to keep everyone on a level footing. Those who need anonymity and those who don’t.
2. Can I subsequently get back my real identity?
Yes. We have a procedure known as “ Military regularization of situation” which can be used by any legionnaire after one year’s service. It is useful for those who have no particular problems outside the Legion. Fresh identity papers must be obtained from the legionnairès original country. A legionnaire, if he so wishes, can spend his entire career under “declared identity”.
3. Can a Frenchman join the Foreign Legion?
Yes. Under “declared identity” a Frenchman’s nationality is changed to that of another French speaking country, so he becomes a foreigner. He can ask for his real identity and nationality after one year’s service.
4. Conversely, can a foreign born legionnaire become French?
Yes. A legionnaire of foreign nationality can ask for French nationality after three years service. He must have been through ‘military regularization of situation” and be serving under his real name. He must no longer have problems with the authorities, and he must have served with “honour and fidelity” for at last three years. French nationality cannot be granted under declared identity.

To my mind, the web site’s response the FAQ’s confirms that anonymity is still needed even as it is equally intriguing to speculate about “the particular problems” one might have that would require refuge in the Legion! (Note, as an aside that the website also clearly states elsewhere that “whatever your marital status, you will be enlisted as a single man”! On this last note, one of the French Foreign Legion’s adopted theme songs is Edith Piaf’s song of defiance, “Non, Je ne regrette rien”. Thus, it would seem, that contrary to all expectations, there is still a place and a position where one’s past, regretted or not, can be reviewed and perhaps re-lived anonymously.

Jean Nelson is legal counsel for the Canadian Medical Association.

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