The myths about identity change in the French Foreign Legion have been around since the unit was founded in 1831. It is said that the Legion has long been a place where people with troubled pasts could escape and start anew. In the past, the Legion accepted men with criminal records, questionable business dealings, and even deserters from other armies and gave them new identities. However, it is unclear to what extent this is still true today. While the Legion may have had a reputation for offering a fresh start to those who needed it in the past, it is unclear if this is still the case.
In modern times, different rules
In the past, it was common for Legionnaires to enlist under a pseudonym or “declared identity,” allowing them to start their lives over. This practice was implemented to allow people who wanted a fresh start to join the French Foreign Legion, and it was believed that it was fairer to require all recruits to use declared identities. French citizens could also enlist under a declared, fictitious foreign citizenship, often a francophone such as Belgian, Canadian, or Swiss.
While the French Foreign Legion may allow individuals to join under an assumed name, they first require applicants to confirm their true identity. French police and intelligence services will conduct a background check to determine whether the applicant has any criminal history. Suppose the individual is wanted for a minor offense or has fled from debt. In that case, they may be allowed to start a new life in the Legion and potentially even earn French citizenship upon completion of their service. However, if the background check reveals that the individual is wanted for a serious crime such as murder, they can expect to be arrested and deported.
New name – only for administrative purposes
In the French Foreign Legion, individuals may be required to use a new name for administrative purposes and to provide the unit with plausible deniability if anyone inquires about the individual’s past. However, even if a new name is used, individuals must eventually be “rectified” and revert to their real name, using a certified birth certificate from their home country to prove their identity. This is necessary for the individual to receive credit for their courses and deployments, among other things. It is unclear how frequently new name changes are required or how the rectification process works.
As of September 2010, recruits to the French Foreign Legion have been able to enlist under their real or under-declared identities. Those who enlist under declared identities may regularize their situation and retake their true identities after one year of service. After serving in the Legion for three years, a Legionnaire may apply for French citizenship, provided that they are serving under their real name, have no legal issues with the authorities, and have served with honor and fidelity. Additionally, a soldier injured in the battle for France may immediately apply for citizenship under a provision known as “Français par le sang versé” or “French by spilled blood.” Ultimately, the choice to use a declared identity in the French Foreign Legion is up to the individual recruit.
Deserters and other minor miscreants
While the French Foreign Legion may still accept recruits with a history of desertion or minor misconduct, the process is now more rigorous. Recruits must undergo a series of physical, intellectual, and psychological tests before being eligible for training. Additionally, recruits are screened for “motivation” later in the process to ensure they are determined to succeed in the ranks.