Do People Really Run Off to Join the French Foreign Legion?

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Anyone who knows anything about Jean-Claude Van Damme knows he played a French legionnaire in the movies. He was just one of many actors to star in films that romanticized this mercenary force. Check out the details in this episode with Josh and Chuck.

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Chuck: Podcast time.

Josh: Let's do it. Hey and welcome to the podcast. I'm Josh Clark and there's Charles W "Chuck" Bryant, which makes this Stuff You Should Know, the lightening quick edition. Is this lightening quick? Yes, because of the lightening.

Chuck: Oh, yeah, we have a tornadoes and stuff coming in so it's like holding out at the OK Corral as the storm roles in.

Josh: Right, but we'd also like to get out of the OK Corral before the storms get here.

Chuck: That's the point.

Josh: Yeah, you were saying there's a tornado flipping cars on 75 up north.

Chuck: Apparently, and I know my dog Buckley's at home just waiting to pee all over the place when the thunder starts. So if I can be there and hold him, he's fine.

Josh: The French Foreign Legion, Chuck?

Chuck: They are a fighting force, a military fighting force that one young man by the name of Jean Claude Van Damme ran off and joined.

Josh: Did he really?

Chuck: In the movies.

Josh: Oh, crap.

Chuck: I got you.

Josh: You totally got me. I was like I never knew.

Chuck: Can you imagine? No, he was - it was in the movies, he wasn't really a legionnaire.

Josh: What movie was that?

Chuck: I think Legion.

Josh: Oh, is there a movie called Legion?

Chuck: Or Legionnaire.

Josh: Huh, never heard of it.

Chuck: But yeah, he's a legionnaire. You can tell.

Josh: I'm not a big fan of his, actually.

Chuck: You can tell - well, you know, I don't know that there are that many big fans, but I'll bet his big fans are like big time Jean Claude Van Damme fans.

Josh: Oh, yes.

Chuck: Like Steven Seagal fans, probably.

Josh: Yeah, probably so.

Chuck: Just hardcore, you know.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: But you could tell that Jean Claude Van Damme was in this movie because he's wearing a hat with a little cape in the back.

Josh: Yeah, the kepi.

Chuck: Is that what it's called?

Josh: Yeah, it's spelled K-E-P-I, pronounced cape-ee, and they still wear those, and it's a tradition. It's still true today, the little flat cap, very stiff and rigid.

Chuck: Yep.

Josh: They don't always have the capes. When they're out where they need them, they will.

Chuck: Well, the reason that they would have them is because for the better part of two centuries, the French Foreign Legion was stationed in Algeria.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: And the reason they were stationed there is because that's where their headquarters were almost from the moment of inception of this military group.

Josh: Yeah, and the reason they were stationed there from inception is because they were a bunch of ne'er-do-well criminals in many cases and so they're like you know what? You guys are great and you're super tough. Let's move you to Algeria to help our colonization efforts and get you out of France.

Chuck: Do you want to talk about the history, first?

Josh: Yeah, well today, let's talk about today just for one sec. There are over - there are 7,286 legionnaires as of December of last year, 2012. To the date - to the date? To this date, 35,000 have died in battle over the years.

Chuck: I saw that, which is not that bad, but it's a small group. Seven thousand isn't much.

Josh: Right, and they are the fighting force in the world that has seen more continuous action than any other.

Chuck: Oh, really?

Josh: Yeah, they fight constantly. They've been fighting constantly.

Chuck: Well and they're bad dudes.

Josh: Yeah.

Chuck: Like they're - they even say in this article and they're well known to be much tougher than the regular French Army.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Because they're not French. Actually, I don't know how much that has to do with it, but they're known for being tough dudes.

Josh: Yeah, and they're also a Special Forces unit, basically.

Chuck: No women. When we say dudes, we can say dudes.

Josh: Yeah, there's never been a French Foreign Legionnaire who's a woman.

Chuck: No.

Josh: And they are - they've been in just about every conflict that the French have been in since 1830.

Chuck: Yeah, I bet.

Josh: And, did you know that the French Foreign Legion invaded Mexico in 1861 and stayed there until 1865 when they were finally beaten back?

Chuck: No, I didn't know that.

Josh: Yeah, they tried to assassinate the president and install an Austrian prince named Maximillian as the ruler of Mexico and set it up as a French puppet state.

Chuck: I wonder if that had any influence on, culinarily speaking?

Josh: I don't know. I don't...

Chuck: French food, sauces with the...

Josh: You don't see much French stuff pop up in Mexico like you do in like Vietnam, during that colonial period, you know or Indosheen.

Chuck: Okay, so do you want to go to the history? Shall we start out...

Josh: Yeah, how do these guys start?

Chuck: Well, in 1830, Josh, let me tell you a little story about a guy named King Louis Philippe. It's known as the July Revolution. He replaced King Charles X and after the Bourbon Monarchy fell and this was - Prussian radicals were involved in this overthrow. So even though he was made king in large part because of these radicals and because of radicalism, these radicals were some tough guys and a lot of them were - it kind of brought in this criminal element in some cases, and - I don't want to say they were bad guys, but maybe they were bad guys.

Josh: Well, the king, Louis Philippe thought that they were a threat to the monarchy because he had gotten to the throne by these radicals and it had attracted radicals from all over Europe, and a lot of them were very soldier like. He was like...

Chuck: We're former soldiers, period. Josh: Right and he said, "Welcome to France. Let me figure out what to do with you. I can't legally make you a part of the French Army so how about I just make a foreign legion made up of foreign dissidents, foreign nations, and send them elsewhere."

Chuck: They were pretty happy with that plan. That was March of 1831. He laid out his eight articles and pretty much that was what the foreign legion was from who they were to be, where they were to train, what they were to wear, and a lot of the traditions were established in that very first set of articles.

Josh: And then included in that, Chuck, was one that said that you had to check for a birth certificate, of certificate of good life manners, and a certificate from a military authority saying that this person is a good soldier. You had to have all that if you were going to accept the recruit. That or it was up to the commandant's discretion.

Chuck: Yea, that reminded me of like how there'll be a paragraph in a legal contract that says all these things and at the very end it'll say like or we could just change our mind about all that.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: So basically, yeah, we need all these papers and documents, and that was in Article 7 or Article 6, and then the seventh article said or just let them in if you have a good feeling about them.

Josh: Right, exactly.

Chuck: Don't worry about the papers so much.

Josh: And that led to this thing called anonymat, which is anonymity in French and it says that you can join the French Foreign Legion under an assumed name because we're going to give you an assumed name one way or another. For the first year of your service in the French Foreign Legion, you need to basically take on an assumed name. You're leaving your old identity behind and it's a really strange, unusual aspect of the French Foreign Legion that still exists today.

Chuck: Yeah, in fact, it was mandatory until just a few years ago, until 2010. You had to sign up under a different name and then at the end of that year, you go through a process called military regularization of the situation, which basically meant you could get your old papers back from your home country and go back to your old name.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: And you can still do all that, it's just not mandatory any longer.

Josh: No.

Chuck: But a lot of guys, it's like the fresh start, you know? That's what they're looking for, a lot of men who join the Army in every country.

Josh: And that's one of the things that the French Foreign Legion touts when you join it, is that we're a place you can have a second chance.

Chuck: Yeah, forget your past, even forget your name. Minor criminal records, I mean back in the day, they would accept major criminals. Now, they're a little more selective and they'll overlook a minor criminal record, but nothing - they won't accept murderers and things like that.

Josh: Right and for a very long time, they would accept no one but foreign nationals. You couldn't be French and join the French Foreign Legion. You could join the Army, but not the Foreign Legion. They recently changed that so you can be French and join it, right?

Chuck: Yeah and you can gain your French citizenship as a foreign national by serving what, three years?

Josh: Three years.

Chuck: In good standing and I think you have to go back to your original name and stuff.

Josh: Yeah, you - if you're going to get citizenship, you can't do it under your declared name.

Chuck: Right.

Josh: And you were talking about that - what was it called where you go through that process at the end of the year? Chuck: Oh, the military regularization of the situation?

Josh: Right.

Chuck: That's such a weird name for name change.

Josh: It really is, but it's not just the name change, it's basically like that represents the end of your first year and it represents the end of the French Foreign Legion owning you during this time. During your first year, you cannot have a civilian bank account. You can't get married. You can't wear civilian clothes even off duty. You can't buy a car. You can't travel abroad on leave to anywhere but France.

Chuck: You have to wear your uniform.

Josh: All the time. In some form or fashion, you have to wear a uniform. Yeah, it's - they own you for the first year. It's definitely harder than the French Army, like you said.

Chuck: And whatever status - if you're married and you join the French Foreign Legion, you have to enlist as a single man. So I don't know if - I guess you can remain married technically, but the papers say that you're a single man.

Josh: I would imagine if you run off to the French Foreign Legion your marriage might be on shaky ground as it is or you're not married.

Chuck: Yeah, that's a good point. They're probably not a lot of already married men.

Josh: It doesn't seem like a very family supportive place. It's kind of like you are getting away from a situation or something like that.

Chuck: Honey, I'm going to have to deny your existence and change my name, but it's really worth it because I want to be a legionnaire and wear the kepi.

Josh: Right and gain the respect of the French.

Chuck: You think? Just kidding.

Josh: Well, you know what's funny is they are - I've read an article, there's an article in the December 2012 Vanity Fair called the Expendables. It's pretty interesting. It's about the French Foreign Legion, what they're doing now.

Chuck: Yeah, I saw some of that.

Josh: You remember in our gold episode, we talked about elicit gold mining in Ghana. Apparently one of the things the Foreign Legion's doing now, is they're fighting those gold miners, now.

Chuck: Oh, shutting that down?

Josh: That's one of the things they're doing because Afghanistan's winding down for the French so they're kind of looking for new stuff to do and that's one of things.

Chuck: New guys to go beat up.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Your first contract if you join up as a legionnaire is a minimum of five years and pay for a corporal starting out is 1,043 euros per month plus, of course, all room and board but that's your take-home pay.

Josh: Right.

Chuck: Well, I don't know about take home, but that's your salary and you get 45 days leave, and then you know, there is a path to prosperity to some degree and success just like any other Army. You can work your way up through the officer ranks, and after that first five years, successive contracts are six months to five years, and I'm not sure how they determine that; whether it's up to you like if you you're like I just want to go six months at a time here guys, or I'm not sure. I couldn't actually find any information on that. If they were like no, you must sign for three years.

Josh: Right, six months, whatever. They're like you'll probably be dead by then anyway, so - and we'll keep all of your euros. So in that article one of the things I was - that I came across was that the legionnaires view themselves and apparently are viewed by the French, as - that's why the article is called the "Expendables," as basically there to fight and kill, and die. There's a lot of honor in dying even if it's unnecessarily, but they're just - they kind of are annihilistic, I get the impression. I think they even use that word, they're nihilists.

Chuck: Oh, really? Well, it's...

Josh: Nihilists.

Chuck: I'd say nihilists. Yeah, I did read part of the article though and they said that normal people don't join the French Foreign Legion. They said they're all just a little off, which good, I bet they're tough dudes.

Josh: The Spanish tried the same thing. In 1920 they tried to form the Spanish Foreign Legion and it didn't take so now it's called the Spanish Legion. It's made up of Spaniards.

Chuck: Yeah, and some folks say America could try something like a Foreign Legion with the influx of non-Americans in this country to maybe serve under our regular armies and I don't know if that's ever been pitched.

Josh: Patch of Citizenship should be in the Dream Act.

Chuck: Yeah, why not, dude?

Josh: I don't know.

Chuck: I'm sure people would be like this is why not.

Josh: Yeah, you can email us later.

Chuck: yeah, I didn't consider it, it just came to my head.

Josh: You got anything else?

Chuck: No, I want a kepi.

Josh: I'll get you one for your birthday. Do you remember when those were like hip in the 80s with the break-dancing?

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: Those were awesome.

Chuck: It's so funny what different cultures latch onto from different eras.

Josh: Yes. Yeah, somebody said that will look very cool when I'm doing a head spin and the kepi was adopted.

Chuck: Awesome.

Josh: Break in Ohio.

Chuck: It's like the painter's cap. When I was growing up, the painter's cap and the bicycle caps were very big in the 80s.

Josh: Oh yeah, the bike caps with the bill folded up. Oh, gosh.

Chuck: Oh yeah, dude. I had a couple of Italian ones. I just thought I was cool.

Josh: What was the name of that one brand that everybody had, the bike hat? You know what I'm talking about.

Chuck: Trek?

Josh: No, it was like a French name, I believe.

Chuck: Oh, I don't know. I think I had one though, I thought it was Italian.

Josh: It was similar to the word champagne.

Chuck: Like Chimano or something, but it wasn't Chimano.

Josh: Yeah, that's Japanese.

Chuck: Oh, I know what you mean, it's going to come to me.

Josh: I wonder if it is Japanese. I'll bet it's Italian or something and I'm saying it's Japanese, Chimano.

Chuck: Yeah, I love it when we do these things where we can't think of something because we always get emails where people are like I was screaming in my home, the name.

Josh: We're sorry for all of you...

Chuck: Camponelli? Campanili?

Josh: Yeah, that sounds close. It's not - it's not so close that we're not going to get emails, but those of you screaming right now, settle down.

Chuck: Spaghetti? Ravioli?

Josh: Get a hold of yourselves. Podcast. If you want to learn more about the Foreign Legion, you can type that word or those words into the search bar at and that will bring up this fine article. There you go and I said search bar so it's time for listener mail. I guess before we get into that, Chuck, you want a message from our sponsor? Let's do that.

Chuck: Josh when you have a similar popular podcast, you end up having to have a lot of meetings.

Josh: Yeah, we have a lot of meetings.

Chuck: We go over ideas. We solve problems. We get together on whatever we need to.

Josh: So let's say we need to have a meeting with some friends on the west coast and we say hey, we want to see you guys, but what do we do?

Chuck: Well, we use GoToMeeting with HD faces and it is really simple, and really fast, and it's a great way to collaborate online.

Josh: Yeah so with GoToMeeting it's easy to stay connected from wherever you are whenever you need to. All you do is click a link, turn on your webcam, and you're instantly connected to your team on the meeting. You're sharing the same screen to collaborate on documents and all the while you're seeing each other face to face in HD videoconferencing, which is pretty cool.

Chuck: Yeah, up to six people on the screen at a time so that means Jerry even on her iPad or her phone, can get on and join our meeting.

Josh: Exactly. We've actually used GoToMeeting before.

Chuck: Yeah.

Josh: And we're pretty impressed with it, we must say.

Chuck: It was pretty awesome, I've got to say.

Josh: So you want to tell them about the special offer?

Chuck: Yes, Josh, try GoToMeeting free for 30 days thanks to this special offer. Visit, click the try-it free button, and use the promo code stuff; S-T-U-F-F.

Josh: Yep, that's promo code S-T-U-F-F.

Chuck: And get meeting folks.

Josh: Now it's time for listener mail.

Chuck: Yeah. This is from Denado and it's about autopsies. "Dudes, just finished listening to how autopsies work and wanted to mention a couple of things. I'm currently in law enforcement and have attended a few of them. My first one was really fascinating. The ME tried to get me to vomit by handing me a brain to pass to his assistant, but it actually really turned out to be extremely exciting for me. So screw you. Me, I'm not vomiting. Look at me, I'm juggling this brain."

Josh: I'm excited.

Chuck: I wanted to point out you did not mention the extraction of vitreous fluid from the eyeballs using a needle. That part was a little freaky to me, I have to admit, and after a couple of times asked why it was done, which leads me to toxicological examination; fluids and samples from some organs are sent for examination in these cases and in my experience, MEs will not provide a final autopsy before toxicology results come back. Lastly, the different between cause and manner of death, COD and MOD, they're used interchangeably often, but COD is the physiological mechanism responsible for death where MOD is the explanation of how the COD came to be. For example, asphyxia is the COD, murder is the MOD if a person is smothered with their pillow.

Josh: Got'cha.

Chuck: So a COD can be considered purely medical while the MOD is a combination of medical and investigative.

Josh: And evil.

Chuck: And evil, so I hope I did not double tap something you guys covered.

Josh: Oh that's an old timey reference.

Chuck: Nice call out to Green Berets.

Josh: Delta Force.

Chuck: Delta Force. Thank you, Denado.

Josh: Thanks Denado, appreciate that.

Chuck: He's written in before.

Josh: Awesome, thanks for writing in again. Has he made listener mail before?

Chuck: No, I'll tell you what he wrote in before after.

Josh: Okay. I just winked at Chuck. If you want to write in, you can write in as many times as possible. See if you can get on listener mail twice. I don't think anyone ever has, right?

Chuck: Well, Sarah, the amazing 11, 12, now 13, 14 probably 15-year-old made it.

Josh: yeah, that's right. Thank you for correcting me.

Chuck: And Sarah, come on, we haven't had a letter in a while.

Josh: yeah, it's been a long time. We don't know how drama class is going and all that stuff.

Chuck: Geesh, get on it.

Josh: All right, if you want to get in touch with us you can tweet to us at SYS podcast. You can join us on know. You can send us an email and you can join us at the Universal Church of Chuck and Josh,

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Duration: 22 minutes