The French Foreign Legion(Légion étrangère ) is a military service branch of the French Army established in 1831. The Legion is unique in that it was, and continues to be, open to foreign recruits willing to serve in the French Armed Forces. However, when it was founded, the French Foreign Legion was not unique; other foreign formations existed at the time in France.
Commanded by French officers, it is open to French citizens, who amounted to 24% of the recruits in 2007. The Foreign Legion is today known as a unit whose training focuses on traditional military skills and on its strong esprit de corps, as its men come from different countries with different cultures. This is a way to strengthen them enough to work as a team. Although it is part of the French military, it is the only unit of the military that does not swear allegiance to France, but to the Foreign Legion itself. Consequently, training is often described as not only physically challenging, but also very stressful psychologically. French citizenship may be applied for after three years’ service. Additionally, any soldier who becomes injured during a battle for France can immediately apply to be a French citizen under a provision known as “Français par le sang versé” (“French by spilled blood”). As of 2008, members come from 140 countries.
Since 1831, the Legion has suffered the loss of nearly 40,000 men on active service in France, Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Madagascar, West Africa, Mexico, Italy, the Crimea, Spain, Indo-China, Norway, Loyada, Syria, Chad, Zaïre, Lebanon, Central Africa, Gabon, Kuwait, Rwanda, Djibouti, former Yugoslavia, Somalia, Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Afghanistan, Mali, Sahel and others.
The French Foreign Legion was primarily used to protect and expand the French colonial empire during the 19th century. The Foreign Legion was initially stationed only in Algeria, where it took part in the pacification and development of the colony. Subsequently, the Foreign Legion was deployed in a number of conflicts, including the First Carlist War in 1835, the Crimean War in 1854, the Second Italian War of Independence in 1859, the French intervention in Mexico in 1863, the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, the Tonkin Campaign and Sino–French War in 1883, supporting growth of the French colonial empire in Sub-Saharan Africa and pacifying Algeria, the Second Franco-Dahomean War in 1892, the Second Madagascar expedition in 1895, and the Mandingo Wars in 1894.
In World War I, the Foreign Legion fought in many critical battles on the Western Front. It played a smaller role in World War II than in World War I, though having a part in the Norwegian, Syrian and North African campaigns. During the First Indochina War (1946–1954), the Foreign Legion saw its numbers swell. The FFL lost a large number of men in the catastrophic Battle of Dien Bien Phu. During the Algerian War of Independence (1954–1962), the Foreign Legion came close to being disbanded after some officers, men, and the highly decorated 1st Foreign Parachute Regiment (1er REP) took part in the Generals’ putsch. Notable operations during this period included the Suez Crisis, the Battle of Algiers and various offensives launched by General Maurice Challe including Operations Oranie and Jumelles.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Legion regiments had additional roles in sending units as a rapid deployment force to preserve French interests – in its former African colonies and in other nations as well; it also returned to its roots of being a unit always ready to be sent to conflict zones around the world. Some notable operations include: the Chadian–Libyan conflict in 1969–1972 (the first time that the Legion was sent in operations after the Algerian War), 1978–1979, and 1983–1987; Kolwezi in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo in May 1978. In 1981, the 1st Foreign Regiment and Foreign Legion regiments partook to the Multinational Force in Lebanon. In 1990, Foreign Legion regiments were sent to the Persian Gulf and took part in Opération Daguet, part of Division Daguet. Following the Gulf War in the 1990s, the Foreign Legion helped with the evacuation of French citizens and foreigners in Rwanda, Gabon and Zaire. The Foreign Legion was also deployed in Cambodia, Somalia, Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the mid- to late-1990s, the Foreign Legion was deployed in the Central African Republic, Congo-Brazzaville and in Kosovo. The Foreign Legion also took part in operations in Rwanda in 1990–1994; and the Ivory Coast in 2002 to the present. In the 2000s, the Foreign Legion was deployed in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, Operation Licorne in Ivory Coast, the EUFOR Tchad/RCA in Chad, and Operation Serval in the Northern Mali conflict.
Other countries have tried to emulate the French Foreign Legion model. However, the contemporary French Foreign Legion relates the most to that of Spain, the Spanish Legion.