“Going to war without France is like going deer hunting without your accordion. You just leave a lot of useless noisy baggage behind.” — Jed Babbin, former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense.
“I would rather have a German division in front of me than a French one behind me.” — bogus quote, attributed to General George S. Patton.
Familiar quotes? Yes, I know, you probably get these “jokes” and more every time there is a mention of the French army anywhere in the U.S. The people cracking these jokes more often than not will probably ignore your standard reply that but for the French Navy and Army, the U.S. would not even exist today. They’d have been beaten by the Brits at Yorktown.
Politicians like to sneer about the French army anytime they get the chance, many members of the military like to do so as well. Why? Is the French army really that bad? What is the French army like anyway?
To answer this, you need to go way back in history. When did a “French army” first appear?
Well, it was a long, long time before the U.S. even existed. The first King that could conceivably call himself “King of France” (well, actually “Dux Francorum” or Duke of the Franks) was Charles Martel. As military prowess goes, he started out pretty well: his army beat the Umayyad army at Tours, thus preventing the Islamization not only of France, but most likely of the rest of Europe as well. So indeed you could argue we have centuries’ worth of experience in fighting the Islamists.
Before that, Martel had already clobbered the Bavarians, the Alemanni and the Saxons. So much for the myth that the French never defeated the Germans.
The Frankish army at that time was pretty advanced. To beat up on the Moors, they had to be. The Moors had very, very experienced heavy cavalry and the Franks only had infantry to deal with that. Anybody who has ever seen what a charging horse with a lance-equipped warrior will do to a foot soldier will understand that to resist the Moorish cavalry, the Franks had to be extremely well trained and disciplined. And they were. The Moorish cavalry broke on the Frankish defensive squares formed by the infantry. The Moors lost the battle. And Charles got his surname “Martel” (old French for “Hammer” because of the vicious way he conducted the battle). Later, having learned from the Moors, he pioneered western heavy cavalry, that would later develop into what we know under the designation of “medieval knights“.
Next stop: Normandy, roughly three hundred years later. A certain William, bastard son of Duke Robert the Magnificent of Normandy, ascends to dukedom at the point of his sword. To do this, he beats pretty much every Norman, Angevin and Breton army that fate tosses his way leaving a trail of debris and corpses in his wake. After that he goes on to invade England (Battle of Hastings, 1066 and all that), beats up on the Saxons and takes the throne of England by force. That, as every Brit alive will point out, is to this day the last time England ever got invaded. And it was a French/Norman army that did it. Troop quality of the Norman army? Best of the best. The Norman knights and foot soldiers were feared in the whole of Europe. They were the prototype for the knights that went on the crusade rampages later. And William was the first medieval warlord to systematically use large units of bowmen in battles. Before him, bows and arrows were usually only used as a skirmishing and hunting weapon.
Right, to sum it up: after that we won some battles and we lost some (yes, Crécy, Agincourt), but overall French armies did pretty well. I’ll spare you the gory details, but suffice it to say the French saw just as many battles as all the other European nations in the Middle Ages.
During the Renaissance period, French armies served the French kings in numerous wars, and while doing that invented quite a few revolutionary military weapons, tactics and organizational subdivisions, some of which are still in use to day (and not just in France either). A classic example: the term “regiment” which evolved from old French (meaning “government“, “rule” and “retinue“) into its contemporary meaning of “subdivision of troops“.
Some units of the contemporary French army still hail from the French renaissance army units. The only thing that doesn’t exist anymore are the Musketeers. Too bad, we should’ve kept those .
And not to forget: rank designations. Nearly all rank designations in the American army today are of French origin (some of them are even older than the renaissance period): sergeant (sergent), sergeant-major (sergent-major), lieutenant, major, colonel, you name it.
It was also at that time that the French Royal Navy appeared and started to develop the traditions that are for the most part still upheld in today’s Navy. The fact that the contemporary French navy is still called “La Royale” in military slang is no accident. Another quaint tradition that stems from these times is the fact that every French naval officer will always wear a navy cutlass on parade (bloody dangerous, I can tell you, from personal experience; they’ll salute with that damned thing and they won’t be thinking about the poor air force officer standing next to them ).
Next we get to, who else, that little fat-bellied Corsican guy, Napoleon himself. I’m not going to go into all the stuff he did in the military sector. That would fill several books. Americans might remember, though, that most modern organizational tiers in almost any army in the world (including the American one) originated in the reorganization of the French troops during the Napoleonic time period.
Then, of course, came Imperialism and with it the creation of special expeditionary forces. The French Marines are still called “la coloniale” or “la colo” (note to francophones: no that’s not a holiday resort for kids ) because of that.
After that, at the outset of the 20th century, a new kind of weapon emerged: the airplane. And hey presto, the French Air Force (or Armée de l’Air, AdlA for short) was born. OK, it was part of the Army first. The official creation of the French Air Force happened later in 1933, but many current Air Force units evolved from the first army flying units. The symbols of these times still abound today. As an example: a French Air Force officer will always wear a black tie with his dress uniform. This is done to honor the fallen, more precisely Captain Georges Guynemer, one of the French “aces” of WWI.
During WWII, obviously, French units had to rely on the help of their allies to survive and stay in fighting shape. They were trained and outfitted by the Allies. But they retained their French particularities. For example, many of the current French Air Force Squadrons were formed and renamed as expatriate units at that time. All of these units bear the names of regions of France because De Gaulle decided at that time that the unit names should remind them of their homeland. That’s why most French fighter wings today carry names like “Alsace“, “Picardie” or “Normandie-Niémen” (OK, that last one is a bit particular since the unit fought in Russia during WWII).
The structures and units of the French Army, Air Force and Navy today have changed since then, but obviously, lots of units, traditions and structures survived to this day.
So, now you know a little bit about the history of the French Army, let’s look into the French armed forces of today.
There are six “subdivisions” of the French armed forces: Army (Armée de Terre), Navy (Marine Nationale), Air Force (Armée de l’Air), Medical (Service de Santé), Fuels (Service des Essences, essentially a kind of overall technical/logistics department) and the French Gendarmes (Gendarmerie Nationale). Apart from that, there are administrative services and general HQs.
And btw: yup, the classic French Gendarme is not a police officer. For Americans, you have to remember that when you meet a “police officer” with a kepi (that typically French uniform round cap with a visor) you’re not dealing with the police, you’re dealing with the French Army. The police work they do is restricted mainly to patrolling the countryside and highways (OK, I’m exaggerating). Otherwise, they’re Military Police. Anyway, the classic stereotype of cops wearing a kepi and with a nightstick walking the beat in front of the Eiffel Tower is pure BS.
The French army of today is a professional army. There is no mandatory military service anymore so you won’t see any “appelés” (conscripts) in the French Army, Air Force or Navy anymore. Used to be different in my time. I was in one of the last “appelés” classes in the Air Force reserve officer corps.
Of course, that fact tends to raise the overall standard of troops quite a bit. Since all servicemen and -women are professional soldiers who work in the army for much longer periods of time (military service used to be one year in France; a basic contract today, depending on specialization, is a minimum of three years; many specializations require much longer commitments, like the 12 years you need to commit for if you want to become an Air Force pilot), the training level is quite high.
As for the numbers: the French army (all services) consists of:
- Army (Armée de Terre) : 133,947
- Gendarmes (Gendarmerie Nationale) : 96,587
- Air Force (Armée de l’Air) : 60,990
- Navy (Marine Nationale): 42,866
- Others (common services, administration etc.) : 12,779
- Overall: 347,169 servicemen and –women
Not a lot when compared to the giant U.S. services, but that’s mainly due to the fact France’s overall population (and defense budget) is a lot smaller. Also in the past, the numbers were about thrice as high. Nowadays we like to think quality supersedes quantity .
Well, actually, the French Army reorganized and restructured quite a bit during the nineties. Before 1990, the threat was clear: invasion by the Warsaw Pact. Accordingly, the main function of the army would have been the defense of metropolitan France and therefore, France needed a bigger, somewhat less trained standing army.
After 1990, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw pact, priorities shifted. An all-out military attack on metropolitan France is no longer very likely, so the army adjusted. Nowadays, the priority lies on low-level, high intensity “out of area” warfare, not large-scale global conflict. For that kind of stuff you need highly trained and well-equipped professional soldiers, not “cannon fodder” conscripts. The step towards an all professional army was logical, and the army reforms are pretty much finished nowadays.
So apart from numbers, what are the differences between the U.S. services and the French ones? Well, there are some, obviously, but not as many as you’d think.
The main difference in my opinion is the emphasis that both armies put on the personal well-being and survival of the individual soldier. The basic tenet of all French services is: we’re here to serve France by executing orders from the Ministry of Defense and ultimately the French President. If the orders are lawful (i.e. they don’t go against national laws, international rules of warfare or basic human rights), we execute the orders whatever the cost. If the mission cannot be accomplished otherwise, your personal comfort, bodily integrity and ultimately your survival are secondary concerns.
Sounds pretty dramatic, but you will find this principle in all French units (not just the Foreign Legion) and you can bet they’re not joking about it (French servicemen do not have a sense of humor unless ordered to ). It is written in every contract of engagement any serviceman signs.
For example: serious injuries during training exercises in “tough” units can and indeed do happen. If they happen, the injured serviceman will receive full treatment and everything will be done so he gets well again. But nobody will understand if he doesn’t accomplish his mission (even if it’s just a training mission) just to avoid injury. I saw examples of this often enough in the Air Force during pilot training: twice I saw pupils come to class with bandaged ears and a very confused sense of balance (due to pulling too many negative Gs in aerobatic training). None of these guys ever missed even one class (I was teaching English radio procedure), even though their hearing was seriously deficient at the time. When I asked them why they didn’t stay in bed they just stated: “ordre du ‘drille” (order of their squadron leader; for francophones: “‘drille” is short for “commandant d’escadrille“) and the case was closed.
A consequence of that principle is the approach that French units have towards civilians approaching them in hostile territory. A U.S. serviceman in hostile territory will always assume that anybody who approaches him is hostile and when in doubt, he will automatically open fire on the person. He does that to absolutely minimize the danger to himself and his unit. Not so with French servicemen: they will not shoot anybody unless the person is identified as hostile beyond a doubt (the same goes for British and German units, btw). This is in part due to the fact that the Army places a higher emphasis on accomplishment of the mission (i.e. protection of civilians in wartime in this case) than on the life of an individual soldier or even a unit. Tough (and, to many, not very humanitarian) but true nonetheless.
Another consequence of this “la mission d’abord, la survie après” approach is the famous “système D“. Now anybody who’s ever been in the French army and quite a few who haven’t know this phrase. It refers to this most illustrious and classical principle taught to French troops: if you have been given an order and you don’t know an obvious way to execute it, don’t complain to your superior about it, but “démerdez vous” (= “get yourself out of the shit” i.e. “get creative“, “use your imagination“). In other words: it doesn’t matter one little bit how you do it, just do it. In fact, the phrase “démerdez vous” is often followed by “je ne veux pas le savoir” (”I don`t want to know“) for obvious reasons .
Of course, all this is the theory. It won’t work out that way in each and every case (war, as we all know, is just as unpredictable as the people who conduct it), but this is an official basic principle of all French armed services.
Another difference is that American troops are a bit more “equipment oriented” than their French colleagues. For Americans, logistics are a main concern since they often move around in very, very large numbers. An American Marine or Army soldier will always carry around a few more pounds of high-tech equipment than the average French grunt. Of course, this can be an asset since it will make his task easier (except that he has to lug around more stuff all the time ). But on the other hand an American soldier tends to rely on his equipment a little too much (hence the humorous description of the Marines as “All the gear, no idea” soldiers; not a French joke, btw; the Brits used to call them that). French soldiers are used to, indeed they are trained to work with deficient or non-existent equipment since in war, one can’t rely on always having all the gear handy. “Système D” again.
Other than that, the differences are not that important, since the requirements of professional soldiering are the same the world over. A French boot camp won’t be much different from an American boot camp. Same methods, same ugly drill sergeants/sous offs, different language . And a French rifle will have to be cleaned spotlessly just like an American rifle (or else …. ). Of course, there are different methods of doing things and the overall organization is much different, but all in all, the difference is in the equipment, not necessarily in the attitude or the quality of training. The main reason for that is the fact that since both armies have to be able to work together (during NATO missions or in another context they often do) interoperability is a big priority.
Indeed, oftentimes both armies cross-train. I already mentioned that U.S. Marines cross-train with the FFL on the site of Arta Plage in Djibouti and in the jungle camps of French Guyana. On the other hand, French Navy fighter pilots get their “Carrier flight training” in the U.S., more precisely at NAS Meridian (incidentally, they fly an American version of a British training plane, the T 45 Goshawk, there ). For a nice blog on the French Navy students and their daily routine, have a look here. It even includes an authentic ATC (Air Traffic Control) conversation of a carrier take-off (click on “On the ball“). See if you can spot the frenchie talking ).
The French Navy Hawkeye pilots (a Hawkeye is essentially an AWACS plane in a smaller version that fits on an aircraft carrier) train in the U.S. as well.
Recently, interoperability exercises have taken place where French Navy pilots landed and took off from American carriers and vice versa.
American cadets and instructors on exchange programs can be found in any of the French officers schools (École Navale in Brest, École de l’Air in Salon de Provence, and St. Cyr in Coetquidan). And of course, some French cadets and instructors attend the American officers schools (Annapolis for the Navy, West Point for the Army and Colorado Springs for the Air Force).
As for equipment: nowadays military equipment is usually “international” (interoperability again). There are some “famous” all-French equipment items worth mentioning though:
- The FAMAS (short fort: Fusil d’Assaut de la Manufacture d’Armes de St. Étienne). This is the standard French military assault rifle. All units use it, and all servicemen train with it. It has a pretty distinctive look. Watch out for it in news reports on Lebanon. You’ll often see French troops carrying it. Most servicemen I know swear by it (including lousy shots like me, who can actually hit a target with that thing ).
- The AMX 56 “Leclerc” tank. This is one of the most advanced tank systems in the world. Watch video here.
- The Dassault “Rafale” fighter airplane. One of the top five fighter airplanes in the world. It will equip the French Air Force and the French Fleet Air Arm.
- The “Lafayette” class frigates. Apparently a very sophisticated and modern naval weapon system (i.e. a warship ).
The list is not exhaustive, of course. Lots of French weapon systems around in the world. A lot more than one would think. French firms produce about 10 to 15% of all global weapon sales. Not sure whether that’s something to be proud of, but there it is.
So next time you hear somebody joke about the French army, at least you will have a little “ammo” to retaliate.