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French Foreign legionnaires are impossible to quiz. When we ask Vladimir, a Russian platoon chief, why he joined up, he replies: “If I told you that, I’d have to kill you.” He smiles (we think he’s joking) and sips his coffee as the television blares in a mess room not far from the vineyards of Champagne, where his regiment is training. “You know, I was in business and I had trouble with the mafia and the police. I wanted to change my life. I went direct to Aubagne [the legion’s headquarters near Marseille] and it was simple.”

The Légion étrangère is a place of reinvention. Any man under the age of 39 and a half can enlist. They must come to France with valid identity documents and report to one of 10 recruiting stations. New candidates are then sent to the pre-selection centre, la Maison Mère in the Provençal hills, for physical and psycho-technic tests (and Interpol vetting to check for serious criminal history). If they pass they are given a new name and a new life in the French military alongside 140 or so other nationalities.

It’s then that the gruelling formation begins. Before they can truly become legionnaires, each solider must complete a four-month training course at Castelnaudary near Toulouse. This initiation phase includes the Marche Képi Blanc, a trek of 70km wearing a 30kg pack, after which the recruits are rewarded with a boxy white képi blanc: the white cap with a black peak that has come to define the French Foreign Legion. “The first few weeks are the most difficult,” says Stefan Helmut, a legionnaire from Frankfurt who joined up in January several years ago and remembers the frosty early morning runs where every solider was given a 5kg rock to carry in each hand. “I used to take packets of butter from the breakfast to use on my palms and lips. It was hard.”

We meet the 2nd Engineer Regiment in the town square of Jeoffrécourt, a mock urban warzone in northeast France. The only inhabitants of its eerie hollow buildings are swallows, which take flight every time a gun goes off. Since the operation started three days ago the troops have been operating on two hours’ sleep per night, taken in bivouacs. “We’re waiting for the enemy,” says Vasilije, a 29-year-old Montenegrin who stands with his rhinoceros-like Renault vab troop mover next to Jeoffrécourt’s pretend pharmacy. Vasilije has a degree in economics and worked in a bank for two years before enlisting. “I wanted to see the world,” he says. “I have served in Mali, in Afghanistan, in French Guiana. In Guiana, the conditions are hard. A 15km hike in the jungle is like 50km in France. There are snakes, insects and rain. We call it the ‘green hell’.”

It’s difficult to understand why someone would leave sunny Montenegro to fight for another nation in another tongue (all orders are given in French). “It’s a dream for a lot of guys,” says Vasilije, who first heard about the Foreign Legion as a boy of 14, when he read about “this mythical regiment” in a magazine (others cite the 1998 Jean-Claude Van Damme film Legionnaire as an inspiration). “The biggest wealth of the Foreign Legion is you see what you have in common with all guys in the world, which is the base to our civilisation. You come here and you become cosmopolitan. Sure, some are here for the money; for me it’s the adventure. It is a pleasure to serve in this historic, elite force with its traditions and its rituals.”

Part of the legion’s attraction is its fabled status and cultish fraternity. While the unofficial mantra is simply “March or die”, a more formal motto, “Legio Patria Nostra” (“The Legion is our Motherland”), encourages a religious-like loyalty, not to France but to the concept of the legion itself. While many militaries are unified and motivated by patriotism, the legion uses myth, tradition and a punishing work ethic to bond its international ranks.

The highlight of the legion’s calendar is Camerone Day in spring and a parade that commemorates 19th-century commander Captain Jean Danjou, who died alongside nearly all his 65 men resisting an attack by 2,000 Mexican infantry. The half a dozen who survived and weren’t maimed charged their assailants with bayonets before they were surrounded and captured. “Joyeux Camerone Day,” says Jean-Charles Sunnayé, a Mauritian in his thirties who left his family (and a job in communications) to join up. “It’s like the legionnaire’s Christmas. It reminds us of who we are.”

In the early-morning sunshine, legionnaires are jogging in yellow tracksuits clutching machine guns before they return to their whitewashed barracks to don parade dress uniforms. Each detail has symbolic meaning, often related to the legion’s history in north Africa. (Before Algerian independence from France in 1962, the legion’s original home was Sidi Bel Abbès, a city 75km inland from the Mediterranean coast.) A wide blue sash, la ceinture bleue, around their waists was once worn to prevent infection in the desert and even the brilliant white képi blancs started out khaki but were bleached by the desert sun.

“Camerone is a moment when we remember who we are,” says Malkus, a Polish sergeant who stands with a group of Pionniers Sapeurs, “a regiment of tradition”, who fasten each other’s long tan-brown leather aprons and smoke Gauloises next to a barracks. Their harlequin tattoos and long beards look at odds with white kidskin gloves. Their black boots have brilliant white laces. The group includes soldiers from Korea, Chad and Madagascar. They form a queue and count out ceremonial axes from a big wooden chest: “Un, deux, trois...” It’s this elite group of sappers who lead the parade (traditionally they were first to hack through enemy defence lines using battle-axes). They march across hot, cracked, earth-red asphalt using the slow step (unlike other units of the French army, which has 120 steps per minute, marching at speed, Le pas Légion has just 88 steps per minute).

Next a box containing Captain Jean Danjou’s wooden prosthetic hand is processed solemnly through the parade ground by an elderly veteran. The hand is placed briefly on a memorial before it is taken to a crypt inside the legionnaires’ museum. Today, for the first time in modern history, a French prime minister is here. “Camerone is a part of who you are today,” says Édouard Philippe to the assembled crowd. “You have chosen to serve a country that is not your own, you have chosen to serve an ideal. Amongst you, I am honoured to give you the affection and gratitude of France.”

The presence of such a high-ranking political figure in Aubagne reflects the success of the legion in recent years. While many European militaries need applicants, the legion can be choosy with its recruits (there are five applicants for every place). It’s also a reflection of the growing importance the government has given it. Under President François Hollande’s direction it expanded by 24 per cent, from 7,200 in 2013 to today’s 8,900 men. Emmanuel Macron’s leadership has continued the theme. Last year it recruited 1,700 candidates – up from the 950 recruited annually between 2013 and 2015. “The legion is about the importance of the collective, about discipline, about moral force and the profound human dimension of great endeavours,” says Philippe. “It was the spirit of sacrifice that pushed the legion to charge an enemy who was superior to them with bayonets. They knew they would die.”

For all its myth and ritual the French Foreign Legion is a cornerstone of the French military. They are a key part of Opération Barkhane, France’s anti-terrorist operation in the Sahel region of Africa. They sport a blue beret for the UN operation Unifil in Lebanon and are part of Opération Sentinelle in mainland France: the force assembled to patrol French cities as a reaction to the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks. “Next year this unit will go to Mali,” says Jean Paul Van den Bulck, a engineer instructor in the French army. He is in a clearing in the countryside of northeast France as legionnaires cordon off a wooded area and search for arms. The soldiers crawl through the woods towards a timber hut where a burnt-out microwave, a bashed-in television and a man with a chainsaw are meant to represent the local population. “This is a typical situation they encounter. They will have to engage with villagers. In Mali they will spend time looking for arms and for explosives, and the material for ieds before they can be assembled.”

The legion’s effective recruiting drive and culture of sacrifice is a boon to the French government as its military stretches to meet it commitments in Mali and the Sahel. Macron has pledged €300bn in spending for the military by 2025 and made an election promise to reinstate conscription for young people. He has cited a need to prepare for an era of global turbulence rather like the Cold War.

Though 90 per cent of serving officers in the legion are French-born, the concept of leading troops with Russian and Chinese passports into battle does not seem to faze the French government (22 per cent of the French Foreign Legion’s personnel are now Russian-speaking.) When pressed, it’s not clear exactly where their loyalties would lie should the unthinkable happen and they were instructed to fight against ground forces of the Russian Federation.

That’s when the legionnaires sound more like mercenaries. One Muscovite tells us that though the training is punishing, it is no worse than his native army and legion pay is better. “I earned €28,000 last year,” he says. “For the first five years we live in barracks, we’re not allowed a wife, a family or a car. What is there to spend it on?”

Suddenly, the mock fighting begins. The enemy attacks, running in under cover of smoke bombs. Sleep-deprived soldiers leap into action firing tank guns. Snipers at either side of Jeoffrécourt’s town square exchange fire for more than two hours and the “injured” are dragged to safety. “Tomorrow we’re going to attack a town, rather than defend,” says one new recruit. “I much prefer this.”

The promise of danger and the spirit of human endurance is still a siren call to thousands who journey to France to sign up. Though most have plans to leave, many never do. “What Legionnaires find difficult is civilian life after this,” says Vasilije. “In the legion you don’t have to think. Here, we have everything. Normal life is a different challenge.”

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