France’s President Emmanuel Macron wants to reinstate mandatory military service for young French citizens.
The concept initially seems surprising for the markedly modern leader. Mandatory military service is an uncomfortable thought for many, calling to mind the horrors of the American Civil War, the World Wars, and the Vietnam War, when young men were drafted against their will.
In times of peace, however, military service serves an altogether different function. Arguing for the institution of mandatory military service in the United States, governance studies scholar William Galston theorized about the negative effects of relying on an all-volunteer force, and the potential benefits of a limited prescribed period of civic service.
He writes that volunteer-based recruitment contributes to what he calls “optional citizenship—the belief that being a citizen involves rights without responsibilities and that we need do for our country only what we choose to do.” In other words, relying on a volunteer force weakens the public notion of the responsibilities inherent with citizenship, and—as an extension—a sense of duty to one’s fellow citizens. Galston notes the power of communal service to foster a sense of solidarity and country. Without it, he argues, a nation is more susceptible to internal conflict, and less resilient in the face of external threats, be they political, environmental or otherwise.
Galston is clear that his support for mandatory military service by no means reflects a support of the draft. “It is hard to see how a reasonable person could prefer that fatally flawed system to today’s arrangements,” he writes, noting that the the idea of universal service would be to promote active citizenship across socioeconomic differences.
The French populace seems to agree. Although there’s murmurs of discontent, the BBC reports that 60% of the population is in support of the idea, at least in some form. Currently, the proposed service emphasizes civic duty, is lenient enough to avoid being strictly militaristic, and spans less than a year.
Europe is unarguably divided, and France is shouldering an increasingly heavy burden in keeping the European Union tied together. A sense of community and solidarity will be critical in carrying the nation through the years to come. It seems that Macron’s ultimate goal is to create stronger social ties between individual members of France’s youth despite their different backgrounds, an idea shared by Galston.
“I do not want to oversell the civic benefits that might accrue from a universal service lottery. Still, enhanced contact between the sons and daughters of the privileged upper middle class and the rest of society would represent real progress,” writes Galston, continuing: “Moreover, some of our nation’s best social scientists see a link between World War II-era military service and that generation’s productive dedication to our postwar civic life. If implementing my proposal could yield even a fraction of these civic dividends, it would be worth the price.”