Escape to the Foreign Legion? Many Recruits Just March Back to Balkans

IN the courtyard of a fort at the edge of the old port of Marseille, a faded Foreign Legion poster invites recruits to enlist 24 hours a day.

High on romance and low on questions asked, the world's most famous professional army has never lacked for volunteers. Every year, 8,000 men from some 120 nations apply for 1,000 openings. But the face of the Legion is changing: Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, about 40 percent of Legionnaires accepted for service have come from Eastern Europe.

Volunteers must be from 17 to 40 years of age (minors need parents' authorization), possess an identification card or make a declaration of identity, and have a physical aptitude for duty in any climate. Knowledge of French is not required.

Many of these new recruits from the East are heading right back to their own backyards - the Balkans. One of 10 Legion regiments, or about 800 men, is currently on assignment with the United Nations Rapid Reaction Force in Bosnia- Herzegovina. Many more are training to be sent to Bosnia in the next few months to support or to help evacuate United Nations peacekeepers.

Fifteen-month legionnaire Milo (not his real name) enlisted because he wanted to leave Romania, lured by the guarantee of French citizenship after five years of service. He expects to be sent to Bosnia next month. ''The ideal for me would be to drive a truck in Canada,'' he says. ''But at least I've made it as far as France.''

French officials are reluctant to make a distinction between French Army troops and legionnaires. ''They're all under French command,'' says a defense ministry spokesman. ''What does it matter how many are from the Foreign Legion?''

Mercenary soldiers have a long history in France. Scots fought with Joan of Arc in the early 15th century, and from a third to a half of Napoleon's Army that invaded Russia in 1812 were foreigners. The Legion was established in 1831 to secure France's colonial presence in Algeria, and spent much of its history patrolling French colonies and fighting valiantly in lost causes. The Legion's defense of Camaron in Mexico in 1863, or the 1954 battle at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam is the stuff of legend. Most recently, the Legion served in the Gulf war and with French UN peacekeepers in the former Yugoslavia.

''Legionnaires have served systematically in every foreign engagement France has been involved in since [the Legion's] founding,'' says Lt. Col. J. Hogard, a spokesman for the Foreign Legion in Aubagne, east of Marseilles. ''Now our main mode of action is humanitarian assistance, but that could change.''

THE tough image of the Legion - celebrated in the slogan ''March or Die'' and in films like the 1939 Gary Cooper classic, ''Beau Geste,'' - is toned down on recruiting posters. Here a Legionnaire is called on to serve France with honor; to be a brother in arms to other legionnaires, regardless of nationality, race, or religion; to respect the traditions of the Legion; to train with rigor, maintain his weapon as his most precious possession, and wear his uniform ''with elegance.''

The 1939 version of Beau Geste was initially banned in France, says Jacques Portes, professor of North American History at the University of Paris. ''France felt that the film called into question the honor of the Legion, because its officers were shown as corrupt and brutal with their personnel.''

In the film, the brothers Geste join the Legion after the family's Blue Water sapphire vanishes from the parlor. Some of today's recruits are also fleeing ''a foolish past,'' says a young Legion captain, who says he signed up in Haiti ''for a sense of adventure.''

''It's still an adventure,'' he adds, with a smile Gary Cooper might have envied. The captain recalls jumping from a plane at 300 feet over Kolwezi, Zaire, in a 1978 mission against Angolan rebels. ''We had to jump horizontally. No one had ever done that before,'' he says. ''Legionnaires don't have views about our missions. We are trained to obey. We just jumped.''

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