10 things I never thought I’d know about the French Foreign Legion
Anne Trager founded the translation publishing house Le French Book to bring more European mystery and thriller voices to the US market. Their most recent release, Montmontre Mysteries by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, is a cozy mystery, French style, set in Paris with plenty of food and wine. With a title like that, Anne knew she would learn a lot about the vineyards in Paris—yes, the French capital has its own wine. As an added bonus with this book, she got an enlightening lesson on the French Foreign Legion too – and shares her newfound knowledge with us!
I used to live in Paris—actually in Fontenay-sous-Bois, which is west of Paris. Shortly after I moved there, I was riding my bike past the Fort de Nogent, one of 16 forts built in 1840 to protect Paris, and I saw a sign that read “Foreign Legion.” A wave of romantic images of soldiers wearing white képis fighting in the deserts of the world rushed into my mind. What followed were fight scenes with Jean-Claude Van Damme from the movie Legionnaire. It turned out I was living not far from one of the mythic legion’s recruiting centers.
Fast forward to 2015. Finalizing Sally Pane’s translation of the new Winemaker Detective mystery, Montmontre Mysteries by Jean-Pierre Alaux and Noël Balen, I encounter a character who fled some dark secret and joined the Foreign Legion, then left the Legion to open a wine shop in Paris. My perfect excuse to find out more. And here you go: 10 things I never thought I’d know about the French Foreign Legion.
1) The Luxor Obelisk, a 3,000-year-old yellow granite column located on the Place de la Concorde, was a gift from a king of Egypt. It ended up in the middle of this busy Parisian square thanks to King Louis Philippe, the same king who founded the French Foreign Legion in 1831.
2) After the Napoleonic Wars, apparently France was full of foreign deserters and criminals. The Legion was the king’s plan to put them to good use, thus its reputation for being full of cutthroats and renegades.
3) To join this elite branch of the French Army today, you cannot be wanted by Interpol. Volunteers however can come from anywhere and do not need to speak French. When you sign up, you need three T-shirts, three pairs of briefs, three pairs of sock and no devices or keys.
4) A number of recruits join under assumed names, thanks to Louis Philippe again, who wanted to ensure the soldiers’ anonymity. Now, when you join, you get a new identity for at least the first year of your five-year commitment. Background checks are still done on real identity.
5) In recent years the Legion has been deployed to Bosnia, Cambodia, Chad, Congo, Djibouti, French Guiana, Gabon, Iraq, Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Kuwait, Rwanda, Somalia, Afghanistan and Mali.
6) Legionnaires do not automatically get French citizenship. That only comes if injured in battle, when you can apply under the “French by spilled blood” provision. Others depend on “good behavior certificates” from the French officers in order to have papers to remain in France after their contract is over. In 2009, the Legion faced charges of human rights abuses related to this practice.
7) More than 36,000 Legionnaires have been killed in action since the legion was founded.
8) Only one woman has ever served in the Foreign Legion—Susan Travers, a British woman who signed up during World War II, serving in North Africa.
9) The Foreign Legion may be 274 years old, but they are as modern as armies get. Recruitment offices are open 24/7 year round. You can see them on their Youtube and Dailymotion channels, like them on Facebook, and follow them on Twitter.
10) Esprit de corps is not only key to the Legion’s honor code, but it is the name of one of the wines—it comes in rosé and red—they sell in the online store at http://www.legion-boutique.com, which has a number of other goodies.
Which brings us back to the Winemaker Detective, and his adventures in Montmartre Mysteries.
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