Who wants to be a legionnaire?


Tony Abbott was going to win the 2013 election. It made my skin crawl. I knew the French army offered foreigners a minimum of five years’ service. I figured Abbott would only be in power for four years at most. Spending five years in the French army seemed like a good alternative to living in Abbott’s Australia.

The Foreign Legion is the division of the French army that employs non-French nationals. The legion was born out of a migrant crisis in the 19th century. As the newest republic in Europe, France was attracting waves of liberal minded foreigners from the neighbouring monarchies. To control this influx, the migrants were offered French citizenship if they served 5 years in the foreign legion.

That was how I found myself standing outside the gates of Fort de Nogent, 18 years old and waiting for my future.

From inside the fortress a voice called “Nationalité?”

“Australian,” I replied.

The gates swung open. A soldier with dark chocolate skin and a steel grey moustache strode out and examined my passport.

“Australie?” He stared at me, and said something like “Je suis de Nouveau Caladonia.”

“New Caledonia? We’re practically neighbours!” I laughed. I stopped. There was no humour on his face.

The soldier went to find somebody who could speak English. He returned with a surely South African who demanded to know where my “sports clothing” was. I had turned up in the suit I’d worn to my school ball the year before. I thought I’d have to book an interview at some recruitment centre. That’s not how the legion works: you show up at the military base and do your fitness testing straight away.

“Can I come back with my sports gear?” I asked.

“I don’t know,” he scowled “Can you?”

I was given a list of stuff to go buy (toothbrush, socks etc.)

Upon returning days later I was brought into a waiting room. I was joined by another applicant, an ex-lumberjack from Canada’s remote north.

We were both marched into an eating hall by an Italian officer. In broken English he asked us why we wanted to join the Legion. You could tell from his facial expressions to what we said that he knew more English than he was letting on. As I talked an almost kindly concern flashed across his roman features, as if saying “you’re too young kid, you don’t know what the hell you’re yourself getting into.”

The Canadian and I were given some Pâté as a kind of breakfast.

The hall was filled with recruits about 16-19 years old, each in a blue or green top.

The boys were led by someone who looked like he had stepped out of a Mardi Gras: A Latin beast, seemingly incapable of communicating without shouting, he was dressed in green short shorts and a matching singlet. He sported perfectly groomed hair and a moustache. This man’s eyes were dotted with fire. There was something quite feminine about his aggression and his hips seemed to swing to a samba.

French Foreign Legion at an army parade, Rome, 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons by Utente: Jollyroger

French Foreign Legion at an army parade, Rome, 2007. Source: Wikimedia Commons by Utente: Jollyroger

Mr Mardi Gras was flanked by two deputies; each about 19 years old whose job involved translating his yelling into broken English.

Mardi Gras started yelling at me in French. EAT THE FOOD! FINISH THE FOOD! THROW THE WATER BOTTLE IN THE BIN! I couldn’t stop laughing, it made him more furious.

The deputies were very supportive, smiling as if to say “you’ll come through.” Actually all the young recruits seemed really friendly.

Mardi Gras and his deputies led the Canadian and me up a flight of stairs to a narrow hallway. A chin up bar hung about three meters off the ground across the passage.

He indicated that we had to perform 7 full extension chin-ups as a fitness test. I’d been practicing my chin ups from 90 degrees so I failed this test.

He was about to fail me right there and then but the deputies begged for him to give me another chance. He conceded, on condition I do 10 pull-ups when he returned from his office while he assessed the Canadian.

Mardi Gras gave me very specific instructions of how to stand while he was gone. When I slouched against the wall a passing recruit gestured to me as if to say “don’t stand like that, mate! You’ll get in trouble. We’re all in this together.”

I failed the pull up test. They told me I could reapply in three months. By then the attraction of the legion was dead.

by Conrad MacLean

Dear Tony

Dear Tony,

I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you this, but you know that first budget of yours, well it’s a massive fail mate.

In a way though you really ought to be congratulated, because you have managed to do something positive for progressive forces in this country, uniting and firing up the left in a way that hasn’t been seen in a long time.

Surely you must have a fair indication of the disdain towards this budget, when even, former high profile Liberals come out publicly saying that you’ve taken things too far.

If you wouldn’t mind Mr Abbott, I have a couple of questions I would like you to think about carefully and answer truthfully.

Why are you attacking the aged, the poor, the sick and downtrodden in our society, when you expressly promised before the election that there would be no cuts to education, healthcare, pensions, or the ABC and SBS?

Don’t you find it somewhat hypocritical to ask us to pay even more for our university education when you got your degree courtesy of the taxpayer?

It’s all well and good to argue that the “age of entitlement” is over, and that everyone has to do their “fair share” but it smacks of insincerity when stacked against the massive corporate welfare handed out to mining companies and big business.

A majority of those I’ve spoken to are appalled by the unravelling of the very fabric of society and the drive towards an uncaring user-pays world, where all that matters is the size of your wallet.

For me personally, what is most concerning is the underlying neoliberal agenda implicit in this budget which promotes a world where the ‘market’ and the ‘economy’ are put before people and the environment which sustains us all.

Tony, I would also like to share with you some of my fellow students concerns about your freshman budget.

Engineering student James is very concerned about your plans to deregulate university education:

“The government argues that university education will still be accessible, but I say that it will widen the gap between those who can afford to pay and those who can’t.

“I find it surprising that the so-called ‘infrastructure Prime Minister’ is funding the construction of roads, which are really only a Band-Aid solution to our traffic congestion problems.

“For instance in WA, the looming threat of having the Beeliar Wetlands bulldozed as part of the Roe Highway extension will come at a societal and an environmental cost – that has been largely ignored, all done under the mantra of ‘progress’,” James said.

Courtney a psychology and criminology student is also troubled about the changes to university education and wonders how she is going to pay for her degree and the impact of the new Medicare co-payments to see the doctor.

“I just don’t understand why the government wants to make it harder for people to get an education,” Courtney said.

“I have friends with young children and I’m worried about how they are going to afford the new Medicare co-payment. Seven dollars might not be a lot to Joe Hockey, but to a single mum raising two kids that’s a significant amount each visit to the doctor.”

It’s not only people you’re hurting Tony, but it’s the environment as well and in particular your decision to handball environmental responsibility to the states is laughable.

Recent university graduate Carmen is most worried about the changes to environmental protection laws and the denigration of our World Heritage listed areas.

“I don’t trust the states to be independent enough when assessing projects, especially when they are the proponent in some cases, I think it will just mean open slather for development,” she said.

So you see, Tony you have miscalculated with this budget, and I would urge you to go back to the drawing board and redesign your budget with people, not numbers in mind.

We want to see politicians who are genuine and have the best interests of the people and this country at heart.

Next time you are at the dispatch box or on a doorstop, just remember that, and know that you don’t speak for me or a lot of other people in the community.

Yours sincerely,

Troy Treeby

A disappointed citizen