France to End Conscription by 2002

PARIS -- President Jacques Chirac plans to scrap conscription, a pillar of France's defense policy since the 1789 French Revolution, but will maintain civilian forms of compulsory national service, a former prime minister said Friday.

Pierre Messmer, who was premier from 1972-74, said Chirac had told him when they met this week that he planned to make the armed forces an all-volunteer force before the end of his seven-year term in 2002.

"The president confirmed to me ... he has decided to abolish military service in its current form," Messmer said.

The shift would move France towards an all-professional army as in the United States or Britain. Currently, about 40 percent of France's approximately half-million strong military personnel are conscripts.

All French men aged 18 are meant to do 10 months of national service in the armed forces. But Messmer said that only about two-thirds of eligible men were actually drafted.

"It's meant to be universal, obligatory and fair ... Well, it's completely unfair," he told La Chaine Info television.

Some avoid conscription by serving as aid workers in Third World countries or auxiliary police in tough urban neighborhoods. Others obtain long deferrals for studies or exemptions on a multitude of health grounds.

Universal conscription, introduced during the French Revolution, is unpopular among young people but favored by the military hierarchy despite the end of the Cold War.

"On the one hand, the need to have large numbers of troops in the armed forces has declined sharply. On the other, we are using these troops mainly on foreign missions," Messmer said.

"The law bans using conscripts on foreign operations," he noted. "In these circumstances, it's inevitable that military service will disappear sooner or later."

Under current rules, only those conscripts who volunteer participate in France's frequent military forays abroad, such as in Bosnia. Such operations are mostly handled by a hard core of all-professional marine, paratroop or Foreign Legion units.

Messmer, who was a long-time defense minister in the 1960s, said Chirac did not intend to abolish national service -- those who did not volunteer for the armed forces would do some other form of national service.