News BlogNational Defense

A reform of the national service which almost did not succeed

(extracts from the book “Nouveau National Service”, published by Puits Fleuy, January 1998)

On February 22, 1996, the President of the Republic, Jacques Chirac, announced on TF1 a major reform project involving the transition to a professional army, more adapted to the post-Cold War context, to build "the army of our needs » and the launch of a “national debate on the future of national service”. The French have to choose between conscription for a reduced duration and voluntary service open to boys and girls.

1. A national and local reflection
From the spring of 1996, an important reflection began. At local level, a letter from the Prime Minister dated March 21, 1996 enjoins each mayor to organize a debate on the future of national service and to complete a questionnaire on the subject (11 questionnaires will be returned by the mayors and 300 by associations). These questionnaires collected at the level of the prefectures are merged into a single summary document, submitted on May 8 to the Minister of Defense. At the national level, both the National Assembly and the Senate or the Economic and Social Council are looking into the question. .

On May 14, the Senate Foreign Affairs, Defense and Armed Forces Committee delivers its conclusions. It considers that the current service cannot be maintained, that the professionalization of the armed forces seems inevitable and desirable and that only the establishment of voluntary national service open to girls as well as boys is realistic, accompanied by the introduction of the teaching of civic education, the reorganization of reserves and preserving the operations of census and selection (renovation of the “three days”).

The joint fact-finding mission of the National Assembly, chaired by Philippe Séguin and whose rapporteur is Olivier Darrason, made its conclusions public on May 23. His point is more nuanced. The abolition of all forms of conscription is not realistic in the eyes of the deputies. But the establishment of compulsory service with a predominantly civilian component and the maintenance of short-term military or civilian service do not seem possible either. She proposes a “citizen meeting”, which would establish the link between the citizen and the nation and would give rise to a medical and psychotechnical evaluation and to an awareness of the defense of young people. This appointment would be extended by the possibility of various voluntary work.

Although not competent in military matters, the Economic and Social Council (CES) made a point of pronouncing itself on the reform on three occasions: on the civil forms of service (in 1995), on the debate on the reform of national service and on volunteering (in 1996). Its rapporteur, Jean Bastide, from associations, is of the opinion that voluntary civil service seems to be the only solution. After having assessed the different forms of service in a positive way (firefighters, cooperation, etc.) or negatively (police, cooperation in companies, adapted military service), the CES wanted above all to lay the foundations for future volunteering (genuine status, attractive remuneration , effect on the employment contract, etc. and its limits (uncertainty about the constancy of volunteering, in particular its qualification, danger of inequality between young people, cost of the service, etc.).

2. A first bill
At the end of the three-month debate, the President of the Republic decided to abolish national service in its classic form from January 1, 1997 and presented a bill establishing voluntary national service for a duration of approximately nine months and a five-day “citizen meeting”, giving rise to a health and education assessment as well as civic information.
This project was discussed in Parliament from the beginning of 1997. A consensus quickly emerged between parliamentarians. The outstanding points that remain between the two assemblies are mostly editorial nuances. But, in April 1997, while the Senate was preparing to proceed to the second reading of the previous bill, the National Assembly was dissolved. In accordance with Republican tradition, the Senate then suspends its work, even if constitutionally speaking it is not required to do so.

3. A second bill
The legislative elections, held in June 1997, brought to the Assembly a left-wing majority led by the Socialist Party. Lionel Jospin, who became Prime Minister, indicated, in his general policy declaration of June 19, 1997, that “the Government intends to complete and respect its timetable the professionalization of the armies decided by the President of the Republic”. But, rather than resuming the work as it was, the new Minister of Defense, Alain Richard, had the Council of Ministers adopt a new text on August 20, 1997. This one is more compact than the previous bill. Because it is refocused on the military aspects of the national service reform. Thus, it removes the citizen meeting – which it replaces with a shorter concept, the defense preparation call – and only envisages military volunteering – civilian volunteering being referred to a later law. This project also has the advantage of being more readable and of taking into account several proposals, both parliamentary and military. The immediate start of work by the parliamentary committees - from August - and the declaration of emergency allow the text to be adopted fairly quickly. The joint committee meeting between the two assemblies did not reach an agreement on a common text, after a new reading in each assembly, the deputies adopted, on October 21, 1997, the final text.

Schedule for the adoption of the second draft 
Reading level National Assembly Senate
1st Reading September 22, 1997 October 7, 1997
joint committee October 9, 1997 (failed)
re-reading October 13, 1997 October 16, 1997 (rejected)
last reading October 21, 1997 —

4. Recourse to the Constitutional Council 
The final twist in this project was that the Constitutional Council was referred to the Constitutional Council on October 29, 1997 by more than 60 senators. They contest the breach of equality constituted by the absence of summons of the 1999 class to the defense preparation call and by the establishment of a deferral for employees benefiting from an employment contract. But a mix-up occurs. Apparently, the senators had first indicated their intention to appeal and then, not having the required number of senators, delayed in filing their appeal. So much so that when it was finally submitted, the President of the Republic had already signed the promulgation decree the day before, October 28, 1997. A school hypothesis that a law professor would not have dreamed of, the Constitutional Council must, in fact, decide which of article 61 of the Constitution which indicates that “…laws can be referred to the Constitutional Council, before their promulgation ..." and article 10 which indicates that "The President of the Republic promulgates the laws within fifteen days following the transmission to the Government of the law definitively adopted" prevails. It ruled, on November 7, 1997, and decided that the appeal, having been introduced before the promulgation, was not valid, and rejected the senators' request without answering the substantive questions raised (for the text of the decision, see appendix § 545). The law can now be published in the Official Journal. What was done on November 8, 1997

Nicolas Gros Verheyde

Chief editor of the B2 site. Graduated in European law from the University of Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and listener to the 65th session of the IHEDN (Institut des Hautes Etudes de la Défense Nationale. Journalist since 1989, founded B2 - Bruxelles2 in 2008. EU/NATO correspondent in Brussels for Sud-Ouest (previously West-France and France-Soir).