PARIS – The attacks by militants tied to the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant less than two weeks ago in Paris have awakened a patriotic fervor in France not seen in decades.
Thousands of people have been flocking to sign up with the military. Those seeking to enlist in the French Army have quintupled to around 1,500 a day. Local and national police offices are flooded with applications. Even sales of the French flag, which the French rarely display, have skyrocketed since the attacks, which left 130 dead.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Col. Eric de Lapresle, a spokesman for the French army’s recruiting service. “People are coming in and contacting us in droves through social media, using words like liberty, defense and the fight against terror.”
The surge in France, which no longer has conscription, mirrors what happened in the United States after the Sept. 11 attacks. In the two years after those terrorist assaults, the number of U.S. active-duty personnel rose more than 38,000 to 1.4 million. The reasons many of those young Americans offered for volunteering to serve are echoed by some of their French counterparts today.
A few miles from where gunmen stormed restaurants and the Bataclan nightclub on Nov. 13, recruiters at the Fort Neuf de Vincennes in eastern Paris were deluged the next day with inquiries from young people, former military personnel and even retirees wanting to know whether and how soon they could take up arms.
‘I’m ready to go to war’
Jeremy Moulin had been walking with friends near the Bois de Vincennes in Paris when the texts started flashing on his cellphone about the terrorist attacks. On Monday, 10 days after the mayhem, he went to Fort Neuf to ask how quickly he could be in uniform.
“These attacks motivated me even more to protect my country,” said Moulin, 23, a former legal intern who said he had often thought about joining the army but now is newly determined. “The terrorists struck in the heart of Paris. If we don’t stop them, they will do it again.”
The French air force, whose retaliatory airstrikes against ISIL targets in Raqqa, Syria, were seen in images that went viral on the Internet, has likewise seen enlistment applications soar to about 800 a day from around 200, an air force spokesman said. And the French national police recruitment website was visited more than 13,500 times daily last week, compared with the usual 4,500, while applications jumped to 4,500 from 1,500.
“Young people especially identify closely with what happened,” De Lapresle said. “The targets at the Bataclan and elsewhere were French youth, and the young are saying they want to do something.”
A 17-year-old said the attacks had shaken him and his family, who live in a working-class Parisian suburb. “I’m ready to go to war,” said the prospective enlistee, who asked to be called only by his first name, Jeremy.
Dressed in a blue sports outfit, he had gone that afternoon to the military base for a rigorous physical test to determine his fitness. He applied a month before the attacks, but now, he said, “This has motivated me more than ever to be a soldier.”
Nearby, scores of men and women in red berets and camouflage, wielding heavy black machine guns, massed together to prepare for an exercise. Military jeeps whizzed by. Inside the recruitment center, posters showed French troops carrying out combat and reconnaissance missions. A video showed French army operations spanning locations from Afghanistan to Libya to Haiti.
The surge comes as President François Hollande moves quickly to ramp up military spending to fight what he cited as a growing terrorist threat on French soil and from abroad. The Paris attackers were mostly French citizens residing in France and Belgium, and coordinating with ISIL in Syria. Last Friday, militants tied to Al-Qaida carried out a deadly siege at a hotel in Bamako, Mali, taking French nationals and others hostage.
Adding to the ranks
Hollande deployed 10,000 soldiers on the streets of Paris and other cities the day after the attacks. Their force is likely to grow as the government reverses an earlier budget-cutting plan to reduce the size of the military in coming years. French military spending, which reached 42 billion euros (more than $52 billion) last year for military operations, weapons, surveillance networks and other support, will grow by another 600 million euros next year, Finance Minister Michel Sapin said last week.
The French army, currently the largest in Western Europe, will take on an additional 10,000 recruits this year and 15,000 more next year. The French national police force and gendarmerie will expand by about 5,000 members, along with 1,000 new customs inspection positions and 2,500 at the French Ministry of Justice.
The ranks of the military reserves will also deepen. Renan Massiaux, a banker, said he was “hurt and angry about the attacks.” At age 32, he was older than the cutoff of 29 for becoming a soldier, but he hoped to be able to “protect France even as a reservist,” he said.
Many French citizens were moved to enlist after January’s attacks on Charlie Hebdo and the Hyper Cacher supermarket and in a Paris suburb, in which 17 people died. At least 30,000 people applied in the months that followed, although some of those inquiries came from people seeking vengeance — which the military does not want — or, in some cases, from radicalized youth making threats against the military, De Lapresle said.
“The Charlie Hebdo attacks didn’t necessarily unite people,” he said, noting that the killings were political in nature. “But after the Bataclan massacre, they are all saying they want to defend liberty and the values of France.”
For Ercan Celic, whose Turkish parents migrated to France 30 years ago, the call to action was stirred by an even deeper emotion. “The terrorists struck not just at Paris but at the entire country. When they proclaim they are acting as Muslims, that’s not true at all — they do not share our values,” said Celic, who is a car salesman but hopes to become a firefighter to respond to future emergencies, a position that requires vetting by the French Army. “I want to prove that people like me can be French and have different origins. We all share a common desire to protect the country from these people.”