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Could national service soon be mandatory in France?

The government is said to be considering a trial of universal national service in term time for high school students. The first experiments could begin next year

Senator Philippe Folliot greets the young volunteers of the Universal National Service (SNU), during the military parade of the Fête Nationale in 2022

National service is currently a voluntary activity for young people in France Pic: Spech / Shutterstock

Several departments in France may trial a mandatory national service scheme for people of lycée (high school) age, with the first experiments – if rolled out – to begin in January 2024.

The higher education union le Syndicat national des enseignements du second degré (Snes) has put forward the idea to trial a Service National Universel (SNU) in the following departments: Cher, Hautes-Alpes, Vosges, Finistère, Var, and Dordogne.

All the lycées in these 'experimental' départements would have to organise and authorise students to take two-week 'team stays' in SNU centres during school time. The ministry of education would need to allow students to miss two weeks of classes. It is said to be considering this.

The statement comes after France’s president Emmanuel Macron said he wanted to introduce a similar scheme as part of his wishes for 2023. He said he wanted to “initiate the necessary changes to our institutions and to our public and civic life”.

Now, reports suggest that the office of Sarah El Haïry, the Junior Minister for Youth, is working on a trial of such a scheme. Her team said that they were waiting for “approval” from the president.

If they go ahead, the trials could begin from January next year. If successful, the scheme could be rolled out to 20 departments in 2025, and then nationwide in 2026, which would include 800,000 pupils.

Mr Macron is said to have ruled out the idea of having a mandatory SNU during the school holidays.

Read also: Massive military exercise to take place on beaches in south of France

There was compulsory military service for young French men, from the Revolution until 1997. It varied over the years from one to five years and, in 1965, was termed service national, though service militaire was still being used in everyday language in the 1990s.

In its final form, it was for 10 months, and 20 for conscientious objectors who could take the option of alternatives like working for a charity (latterly there were also options of serving in the police or gendarmerie).

It was obligatory for men but women could volunteer.

Currently, there is no mandatory national service in France, although young people can take part in SN on a voluntary basis.

The mandatory SNU was replaced (in favour of an all-professional army) by the much less onerous Journée défense et citoyenneté (JDC), a one-day course for all young French nationals.

This is intended to inform young French people about their rights and obligations as citizens, and about how national institutions work. It has to be completed between the ages of 16 to 25 following the young person’s official registration at the mairie (recensement). 

It includes an explanation of national defence and ways in which it is possible to give service.

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