National Service in Review: France’s “Service National Universel”

I am often asked what exactly my national service for the Swiss Armed Forces entails. Questions about who is effected by it, how long I am obliged to serve and what exactly the system looks like are among the most frequent. In light of this, as well as the recently completed test phase of the new national service model in France, we here at 42.5 Degrees felt it was high time to delve into the subject, and present a series of posts dedicated to the different forms of national service around the world. We begin the series with the French Service National Universel (SNU).

In the summer of 2018 French president Emanuel Macron made good on one of his campaign promises and laid the foundations for re-instating a universal national service system in France. The goals of this new national service are twofold: The first is to create a better sense of cultural and social cohesion among the next generation of french citizens.
Secondly, the universal service model aims to reduce France’s staggering youth unemployment rate of 24%. Some experts maintain that this high level of unemployment is one of the main causes for the rise of the far right and populist political movements in France.
The SNU in its current form is structured in two stages and is aimed at both young men and women the ages of 16-18. The first of these is a one month “traditional” military style training with the Army, Fire Service or Police. The second stage will be a voluntary minimum 3 month to maximum 12 month internship in defense and security, social care, the environment, or heritage.

Since being announced, the SNU has been cause for uproar among many of France’s youth organizations. Their complaints have been focused on how the service model is mean to be implemented and how the logistical difficulties of the service model will be overcome. A recent poll of 46,000 french young men and women shows, however, that the SNU is popular. 75% of those polled stated that they are in favor of the SNU and the goals it is attempting to achieve. The 25% that disagree with the SNU, stated that their objections come from the fact that the service is obligatory and that it is to take place during school holidays in the summer.

The first test run of the SNU started on 17 June 2019 with 2000 volunteers from a dozen french departments (equivalent of counties). The volunteers and future draftees come from all walks of life including high school students, apprentices and those who have dropped out of the school system altogether. The test run month is conducted in two parts. The first of these is 15 days  spent in communal accommodation, that is boarding schools or military barracks, in which the volunteers have lectures in civics, new drivers education, interviews with professional military servicemen and women as well as plenty of physical activity outdoors. In the second 15 days, the volunteers chose a work assignment that serves the greater good of society. This can be at any number of public institutions including the military, retirement homes or other organizations. At the end of the test run month, the volunteers are offered the option to extend their work for a minimum of 3 months to a maximum of 12 months.

snu_objectifs_periodes_1141692.189(Poster detailing the goals and steps of the SNU)

It remains to be seen how successful this new service model will be. As it currently stands the yearly intake of the SNU will be approximately 800,000 young men and women. A recent announcement by the French government indicated that the SNU should be fully implemented by 2021. On the other hand it remains unclear what effect the Gillet Jaune (Yellow Vest) Movement will have on the SNU. However, the initial feedback on the test run appears to be mostly positive. There will no doubt be points for improvement, such as an effective communication strategy as well as logistics difficulties that need to be mastered. Nevertheless it is not unreasonable to see this new national service model could be an effective means to tackle some of the issues France faces.

Our next post in the series will look into Switzerland’s national service model and the challenges it faces.


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