Confusion surrounds Macron’s ‘compulsory’ military service

French president wants all young people to serve, but minister says scheme may not be obligatory.

The French government is grappling with how to honour Emmanuel Macron’s controversial election promise to reintroduce compulsory military service for young people.

France’s president said this week that his new “universal national service” would include an obligatory period of between three and six months for all young people, who would take part either in the military or in a form of civic service.

Macron conceded at a meeting of political journalists that the details of the scheme, which could be piloted from 2019, had not yet been decided. He said there would be a financial cost, adding: “I don’t think it would be prohibitive – this is not about recreating massive barracks.”

There has been apparent confusion over the future shape of the conscription scheme, which would involve about 600,000 young people aged 18–21 each year.

The French armed forces minister said last week that the scheme would “probably not be obligatory”. A parliamentary defence committee report on the project, seen by French media, suggests any scheme should be purely voluntary because it is neither possible nor desirable to force young people to take part. But the government spokesman Benjamin Griveaux insisted this week that “it will be universal … and it will be obligatory”.

Macron surprised the country when he announced during last year’s presidential campaign that he wanted to make all young people spend time getting “a direct experience of military life, with its knowhow and demands”.

France phased out compulsory military service between 1996 and 2001. Macron, 40, is the first French president not to have been called up to serve in the army.

When he first announced the idea of bringing back compulsory military service, Macron framed it as part of France’s efforts to prepare for an era of global “turbulence” comparable to the cold war.

But the campaign promise was also seen as a way of appealing to supporters of military service at a time of increasing social divides in France. Some in the French army were concerned that providing young people with citizenship training was not the domain of the armed forces; the French military is currently stretched by operations in west Africa and the Middle East, as well as anti-terrorism operations in France.

Macron’s office has set up a working group to define the new national service, due to report in April this year.