Few French draftees march to the drum of conscientious objection

THE French national anthem, ``La Marseillaise,'' includes the refrain ``Aux Armes Citoyens,'' reminding citizens that civic duty means military service. While Anglo-Saxon countries have abandoned the obligatory Army stint, France and other Roman Catholic countries have resisted. Civil service as an alternative for draftees became possible here only in 1983.

Today, about two-thirds of all young Frenchmen spend 12 months in regular Army service. Most of the rest are deemed physically or mentally unfit for serving. Some serve as ``cooperants,'' a sort of Peace Corps, or in French overseas departments. Less than 1 percent of all draftees become conscientious objectors (COs).

``It's ironic: We have both the most liberal laws and the fewest objectors in Western Europe,'' says Michel Leter, director of an organization that coordinates civil service activities (SSCS). ``Lots of factors work against us. It's a macho culture, men fear not conforming to a virile image. Some think COs become untouchables professionally.''

French males are called up systematically. Registration dodging is almost unheard of and is punishable by several years in prison. Everyone spends three days in a battery of physical and psychological tests. Military atmosphere reigns in the barracks: It's total immersion as the men line up by the dozen in underwear and socks for review by the medical staff.

For objectors, Army life ends here. Personal opposition to using arms, explained in a formal letter to the minister of defense, is enough to receive the official status of conscientious objector. Release in hand, the objector finds a designated association or unaffiliated nongovernmental organization to work with. Jobs are defined, a ``contract'' signed, and the objector gets to work.

``A typical objector, who has some higher education, does this service for philosophical or religious reasons,'' Mr. Leter explains. ``He wants to be socially useful. He is against the military establishment but is not necessarily anti-defense. Some are antinuclear, some support the idea of civil defense.''

Objectors choose organizations that help them advance personal goals. Such associations range from international groups like Amnesty International to huge French Christian rural youth groups. Some objectors work on peace education problems in designated ministry-approved locales. Their jobs share one thing, though: They last for two years, twice as long as standard military service.

Technical problems abound. Since objectors are civilians in a national service, governmental departments must pay room-and-board stipends to the sponsoring association. With a few notable exceptions, the money comes late.

``We haven't been reimbursed for 1986, let alone 1987,'' says Pierre, a leader of a group called Culture and Liberty. ``We still pay the objectors monthly. The bank is on our back.''

COs see these funding problems as a subtle form of sabotage. They suggest that, rather than protesting against the system openly, certain bureaucrats seem to hope it will simply wither away.

Governmental reticence toward objectors is not new. Until the late 1950s, prison was the only alternative to military service. Then the anarchist Louis Lecoin, supported by such well-known artistic figures as Bernard Buffet, Albert Camus, and Jean Cocteau, began campaigning to establish a legal alternative to armed service.

When the Evian Accord was signed in March 1962, Algerian activists were freed from prison, and French objectors remained in jail. De Gaulle promised to help. Several months later, Lecoin, who was 74, went on an unlimited hunger strike. Public opinion allied to the cause and soon a status change was obtained.

The first French law provided something for everyone. A civil service did exist, but it consisted of working in a fireman's emergency unit in a paramilitary setting where young men lived in isolation in special barracks and wore special uniforms. Governmental officials were pleased, too: Few draftees were crazy enough to take such a choice.

The pro-choice lobby continued fighting. Aided by the religious community and the European Parliament, which declared conscientious objection a fundamental human right in 1982, they have succeeded in pushing through successive reforms.

Today there are 100,000 objectors in 21 countries throughout Europe. Some nations allow service abroad, others limit the status to noncombat duty within the armed services. In West Germany, objection has become a mass phenomenon, with 51,000 spots available annually. The Swiss still have no alternative service. Northern, largely Protestant countries generally have liberal laws and high, though legally limited, numbers of COs.

In the post-INF era, only half of all French people ``support the organization of a mandatory national service,'' according to a recent public opinion poll. Of those questioned, a whopping three-fourths favor young people having the choice between a military and civil service of equal duration. Perhaps the time has finally come to change the refrain of ``La Marseillaise''?

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