Where did universal national service (UNS) go? Remember: on March 18, 2017, during the presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron committed to a “compulsory and universal national service”, lasting one month. A time of training in patriotic values, but also a period of social mixing, the young people being randomly distributed over the territory, as in the time of military service. “Each young Frenchman will thus meet his fellow citizens, will experience social diversity and republican cohesion”, promised the future head of state. The SNU was to concern all young adults aged 18 to 21, i.e. 600,000 young people per year. Miracle, the polls have repeatedly consecrated this idea. Last March, 75% of French people supported this project of a mandatory SNU. A majority proposal in all strata of the population, on the left, among young people, among workers… A triumph. And yet, in 2022, only 32,000 young people have completed the SNU.
In the meantime, this so-called authoritarian President of the Republic has come up against several lobbies. The army has not been enthusiastic about taking charge of these cohesion stays, reduced to two weeks, for high school students. Difficult to blame the military, as the means of their action are already threatened by budgets in retraction for two decades. “My concern is to prevent the means which are provided for the reconstruction of the armies, in the military programming law, from being diverted in favor of a universal national service”, summarized General François Lecointre, head of staff, on Cnews in May 2018. To reassure the military, in the context of the resounding post-resignation of General Pierre de Villiers, the predecessor of François Lecointre, it was then decided that the UNS would be generalized… but gradually. In June 2019, a first phase of national service was launched in thirteen departments on a voluntary basis, for young people aged sixteen. And then the temporary was made to last…
The government realized that legal uncertainty existed: in February 2018, a fact-finding mission presented by MPs Marianne Dubois (LR) and Emilie Guérel (LREM) pointed out the risks of unconstitutionality of a period of compulsory boarding school for minors, possibly contrary to the principle of freedom of movement. The same MPs also felt that national service too far removed from the principle of the country’s defense could be considered forced labour. A principle never confirmed by the Constitutional Council, and which pretends to forget that since a law of 1963 (gradually widened), the conditions of military service had already been relaxed: it was possible to opt for the regime of “objectors of consciousness”, which was similar – already! – to a civic service, longer than the armed version. And this until 2001, date of the end of conscription decided by Jacques Chirac.
Still, the argument impressed the government. Sarah El Hairy, the Secretary of State for Youth, believes today that “the question of whether or not the UNS will be compulsory is a matter for parliamentary debate”. Relative majority obliges, the subject is far from being a priority. Generalization is therefore pending.
In recent months, in an unprecedented alliance with La Grande Muette, several intermediate bodies have also taken action against the project. Parents’ federations, teachers’ unions and youth organizations have all stormed, some believing that the training should take place within the framework of public schools (FCPE), others affirming that it amounted to “waste” (SNES-FSU). In January 2023, seventeen organizations, including the Unef, the Human Rights League and the Education League spoke out against a device likely to “format, control and militarize young people”, the SNU being assimilated to a “descending and authoritarian form of pedagogy” contradicting “an emancipatory and responsible will”. In the context of the pension reform, the executive once again considered that it was urgent to wait, so as not to further antagonize the youth.
As a result, Sarah El Hairy has just announced that it is now a question of offering a SNU per class: the “cohesion stay” would be done with her usual comrades, near the high school. Which has nothing to do with the initial promise, that of an opening onto different social and geographical worlds. Or how, in six years, to slowly unravel a great idea to turn it into a badly cut dimension.