From the ever-fecund brain of Emmanuel Macron comes a “new”, but in reality rather old-fashioned, idea: national service. It was an also characteristically vague election pledge of his that he would expose French youth to “direct experience of military life”.
In fact, it looks as if it won’t be that tricky for the jeunesse doree to avoid tedious square-bashing, peeling spuds in the cookhouse and learning how to assemble and disassemble a machine gun. By the sound of it they won’t be obliged to do much beyond the initial stage of a compulsory month-long placement with a focus on “civic culture”. Hanging out as a guide at the Louvre or helping out in the library of the Pompidou centre doesn’t sound all that martial.
Only after that can les millennials, or les post-millennials, as perhaps they might be termed, choose to clamber on board the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, join the expeditionary force in Mali or pilot a Dassault Rafale fighter which, you’d admit, does sound like fun. Even then, though, you can always opt for voluntary work with charities, teaching or the fire brigade.
Still, it sounds like a fine scheme, this modernised version of an old concept. It is one that we should think about taking up in Britain. It’s possible – you’d put it no higher than that – that it would “build character” to use a quaint expression. It would also widen horizons, literally, if the new recruits were sent abroad for their voluntary or military service.
For many it would offer an opportunity for a pause in their lives, a period when they could think about what they really wanted to do in future, and perhaps avoid the mistakes that can happen when the transition from school to university to work is carried through too rapidly. As an institutionalised, formalised version of the “year out” it would be less of a doss and more valuable both personally and to wider society.
So there is much to commend it. The main problem, of course, is money, and also fairness. The last first, if I may.
The problem with conscription, in all societies at all times, is that the wealthier, more privileged elements of society find it easy to avoid. Today, the world’s most famous draft-dodger is the president of the United States, rather shamefully.
Prime battle fodder for the Vietnam War, the young Donald Trump had some unlikely medical condition to do with a “spur” on his foot that excused him from being sent off to take his chances with the Viet Cong, like so many other young men in the 1960s, when the US government was so hard pressed it had to reintroduce compulsory recruitment.
A disproportionate amount of the fighting, and the casualties, was endured by young black men from the poorest strata of America. By contrast, Trump, son of a rich property developer, was allowed to continue with his studies of the real estate market. George W Bush’s service with the Texan National Guard reserve was equally undemanding.
So the challenge is to ensure that deferrals would be minimal. It will be interesting to see how that progresses in France, which, like America, is a much more snobby and class-ridden society than its own self-image proclaims. At least in Britain – and I realise I am tempting wrath here – the upper classes have a respectable record, albeit with a commission in the officer class usually guaranteed.
Military or community service has to be something that is shared equally among the classes, or else it will be resented and socially divisive. If done right, it would mean that, to a degree, young men and women from different backgrounds would mix.
In a society ever more heterogeneous and multi-cultural, that would be a greater bonus than it was in the 1950s or before – a shared, common experience. Those faced with real conditions on a busy hospital, a hard-pressed prison or care home, in a classroom, in an ambulance station or on a council street cleaning team would soon appreciate the value of public services – services they and their families will one day rely on.
Even if that issue of social solidarity were somehow solved, there is also the question of cash. The reason why the British gave up on conscription in 1957 was that the nation could no longer afford to put thousands of sometimes unsustainable young men through military training, and the country had given up in any case on its futile struggles to hang on to the end of its empire in Cyprus, Malay, Kenya and elsewhere.
As President Macron may have discovered, financial constraints have curtailed the scale of his ambitions for this modernised national service, hence its much smaller scope. If it is only for a matter of a few weeks, then one way would be to treat it as a form of extended schooling, and therefore something for which no wages would be paid in any case, though that would still leave some costs for overheads and training.
For an extended and voluntary period of service or training then a modest fee might be charged, to be repaid much later, as with university tuition fees, or else waived if the “candidate” stayed on to become, say, a soldier or teacher.
It is unfashionable to point it out, but Britain has largely solved the problem of youth unemployment, albeit with a system of often lower-paid jobs, flexible contracts and part-time working. That is better than the position in France, where there are fewer jobs generally, but better paid, because having people in work is better than having them on benefit, and certainly at the start of their working lives.