Women in the French Foreign Legion

9 Mins read

The French Foreign Legion or La Legion Etrangere is one of the world’s elite military forces; it currently has roughly 1,800 members, and all of them are men. Since its foundation in 1831 by King Louise-Philippe, only one woman has ever been allowed in.

Her name was Susan Mary Gillian Travers, who had left London, her birthplace, and joined the French Expeditionary Forces in 1939, just before the Second World War. Her career in the Legion started as an ambulance driver for the 13th Demi-Brigade in 1940, but her remarkable skill in avoiding landmines, rockets, and bullets earned respect among the men, who called her ‘La Miss’.  She was named as a General in May 1945 and by the end of the 1990s she had been given the Medaille Militaire, the Croix de Guerre, and the Legion d’Honneur, some of France’s highest military awards.

Portrait of Susan Travers

Portrait of Susan Travers [Wikimedia Commons]

Just three years before her death in 2003, The French government ordered that the Legion should open its gates at Aubagne, near Marseilles, to women. A year before this, the commandant of the Legion, General Christian Piquemal, declared: “The presence of women is incompatible with the very nature of the Legion. Our founding principle is cohesion and camaraderie between men. Women would mean the end of the Legion. They have their place in the army, but not with us.”

Eighteen years later, no woman has ever been accepted to join, and it appears that the core of the former General’s statement still applies in today’s legionnaires’ perception on the subject, according to 23-year-old Eva Abate, who wishes to get enrolled.

“I know what members think about women joining the Legion if you go on Facebook for example and have a look at what people discuss in the FFL groups you’d be shocked. These people just hate the idea that one day they might work alongside women,” she told Artefact.

“A guy once told a girl that she can join just as a prostitute if she wants to. That’s not fair, not at all. It’s actually disgusting, the fact that some of them have this vision of women serving the Legion. There are women serving in the Marine, in the Air Forces and even in the SEALs, and that proves that women CAN do it. I can do it.”

Despite the sexism that clouds the fundamental idea behind the enrolment queries which still apply to this day, women are trying to push the barriers forward and win their place among the world’s toughest military force. Eva Abate and Mariel Cabili are two of them, who agreed to talk about why they want to become legionnaires and beat the stereotype.

Eva Abate, on the one hand, comes from a family that has spilt blood on the battlefield for years: “Serving the military services is a tradition in my family, if I may put it this way. My great-great-grandfather fought in World War One, then my great-grandfather fought in World War Two and my father still serves the army in Italy. I’m the only girl in my family but I train harder than the boys, I want to earn my place in the military forces and I’m ready to do whatever it takes.

“My dad kind of supports me but I can’t say he encourages me too much. I suppose he either doesn’t believe in my strength or he just doesn’t want to. Or who knows, maybe he has the same opinion just like the others, that there’s no place for women in the FFL. But I just can’t wait to see their jaws dropping when I’ll wear the uniform.”

On the other hand, Mariel Cabili was struck with the idea one day while she was spending time on the Internet: “I lived in the Philippines for 25 years working as a boxing trainer. I loved my job and I was quite happy with my life – a simple one but good enough to be at least satisfied with it.

“But that was until I’ve seen some videos on YouTube with some guys from the Legion training. It might sound silly but at that very moment, I felt something in my stomach. You know, that kind of feeling you get when you come across something you instantly feel it’s just right for you. I kept watching for a while and I simply knew that that is what I wanted to do with my life from that point forward. Even though my life in the Philippines was not bad, I just wanted to leave it all behind. I don’t know, it just didn’t feel to be enough for me anymore.”

Woman in combat

Woman serve in many modern armies [Africom]

While their backgrounds are completely different, it’s the past that fuels their motivation even though their chances at the moment are fairly low.

“Yes, there is little to no chance for them to let me walk through those gates, but I’m confident that if any of them gives me the opportunity to prove myself then they’ll have a second thought. Physically I can compete with a man any day, anytime. I actually might embarrass some of them. Living at home has been just like living in a camp for all my life. If some go to France to discover military, I’ve been living in the military regime since I was born. The only difference is that my mum cooks better than what they serve at the mess hall,” said Eva.

Mariel, however, remembers her tough childhood days and points out the poverty which made her the person she is today.

“I grew up in poverty, I think poverty changes people a lot but it doesn’t always educate them. Everyone was poor in my neighbourhood, my two sisters and I used to all wear the same clothes, and the kids used to beat me over my slice of bread. Most of the times that was my meal for the whole day. Because I am the eldest sister I did not only have to stand up for myself but also for my sisters, and that gave me lots of reasons to get into fights. Before I knew I became so good at it no one would dare to pick up on me or them, that’s when they started calling me ‘Malakas’, which means ‘the powerful one’. That’s how I’ve got into boxing and most important that’s where I get my strength from.”

Despite the burning desire of the two young women, it is worthy to look at what the Foreign Legion has to offer to its’ members, what kind of requirements they need to fulfill and also what the process of enrolment is.

First of all, the only ones who will be considered are men between 17-and-a-half and 39-and-a-half years-old who are physically fit to serve at all times and in all places around the world, for at least five years, which is the duration of the first contract. The men who show up at the gates of any centre in France must make sure they have healthy teeth (‘the maximum number of missing teeth is between four and six, depending on the value of the teeth,’ according to an informative website set up by a person close to the Legion ), no unstable knees or total loss of a finger, and also ‘no stupid tattoo on the face/arms, even if it seems to be small.’

To make it even more clear, the website admin gave the following example: “If you have a little drop near your eye, you can try to join; if you have a vagina tattoo between your eyes or a penis tattoo on your arm, stay at home.” However, genuine tribal tattoos on the face are accepted in some cases.

If all these requirements are fulfilled and the person is not wanted by the police or Interpol, then they will be considered for the selection process, which lasts between two and five weeks. During this time, their passports will be kept by a serving legionnaire at the recruiting centre and they will also not be able to contact their families. Laptops, mobile phones, and other electronic devices are forbidden. Basically, contact with the outside world is cut off.

If you pass the psycho-technical tests, the sports tests and the medical tests, then you are given a contract and also another identity. So, in other words, you become someone else and get the chance to start a new life in the Legion.

But how much do legionnaires earn during their service? Not as much as some may tend to believe – some actually less than some middle-class people in London. Depending on the regiment, the salary varies between €1,205 and €3,567 (£1,055 to £3,123) per month.

Given all these, why would someone want to join the Legion? “I don’t want to do it just for the money or the freedom of living under another identity after I finish the contract. Sure, some join the Legion for the money because you get to save a lot while you are there, others want to get rid of their past or even just because they like killing people. There’s actually a guy who’s told me that nothing makes him feel better than having the right to decide on one’s life, the power to kill whoever he wanted,” Eva told us.

“Of course, I am aware that the Legion means killing people, no one goes there on holiday, but each one of us has a different reason to join and I think people who become members just for the sake of blowing someone’s head off are just psychopaths. My reason is simpler than one might think. Just as I said, I’ve lived in the military environment all my life. My ancestors have fought on the battlefield. It’s in my DNA, simple as that. I can’t see myself doing something else, working a nine-to-five job, getting married and coming back to my man and kids at the end of the day, hell no. I want to be on the field sweating and fighting, pushing my limits, defeating the enemy and winning,” she said.

Women in army

Women now serve on the front line in the British army [UK Department of Defense]

Mariel Cabili, however, links her reason to one of her passions and hobbies but also points at the change of identity. “I want to join the tireur d’elite – I have always been a guns amateur, I used to go to a local shooting range in my hometown, Quezon City, on the weekends. At the moment I can handle quite well an AR-15, which is quite popular among shooters, so I’m sure I’d do well with a sniper after I get some training, of course. I don’t know yet if I would choose to live under the other identity after I end my contract, probably yes. I mean, since I will have a new life why shouldn’t I have a new name as well? I’ve never liked the name of Mariel anyway.”

So how far are they willing to go to join the Legion? Mariel’s story is a lesson of perseverance, dedication, and hard work. As “motivation is the key of success in the Foreign Legion,” according to Lieutenant-Colonel Yann Doutey, her story underlines the fact that women deserve to have the change men have, if they are willing to dedicate themselves to it.

“I moved to France six months ago, I’ve found a job as a waitress and I am trying to get in contact with as many people in the Legion as I can. I know it might sound crazy that I’m doing all these stuff when they don’t even accept women but I feel like I can make it. Correction: I am sure about it!” Mariel tells us.

“So far two ex-members have told me that I might break the barrier if I can prove that I’m better than most of their men. But that’s going to take a while, maybe more than a couple of years until they will finally lift the restriction on women. However, I have hope that I will get in by the time I hit 30. I’ve hired someone to teach me how to shoot with different guns, many of which I had never seen in real life before, so I spend most of my free time at the shooting range.”

About 150 volunteers knock at the Legion’s door every week, but only 30 of them get admitted. Nonetheless, none of them are women, even though a precedent has already been set by Susan Travers, who had managed to be decorated seven times, to be named a General and to fight in Vietnam during the First Indochina War.

However, while her performance was exceptional and few people could do what she has done, regardless their gender, the direction she had given in the Legion should not have come to an end.

While not assuming all women would be as great as she was, the fact that this precedent has been set and the stories of Eva Cabate and Marile Cabili prove, the Legion might want to consider another perspective on the matter.




Featured image courtesy of the estate of Lieutenant-Colonel Paul Lucien Paschal (1919-1994)

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