French military races for recruits after lockdown setback

At a recruitment centre north of Paris, three young men with hopes of becoming French soldiers pore over contracts received a month late as the COVID-19 crisis brought enlistment to a halt.

France's two-month lockdown proved a major setback for the military -- the largest employer of first-time job seekers aged 17 to 30 -- as it seeks to attract 26,000 new recruits this year.

"Each month that passes without recruitment is the equivalent of an army regiment missing," Defence Minister Florence Parly warned this month.

Since enlistment resumed last week, around 15 candidates have been showing up every day at the centre in Saint-Denis, a Paris suburb with one of France's highest unemployment rates.

"We've been on a war footing since last Monday to receive these young people," General Remi Seigle, the army's deputy head of recruitment, told AFP.

The region counts 350,000 people aged 15 to 29 -- "exactly the target group," added Colonel Cyril Lepretre, head of recruitment for the Paris region and France's overseas territories. He noted that some 70,000 of these were without jobs.

And with the economic pain from the lockdown measures expected to severely curtail private-sector job opportunities, "There could be an uptick in enlistment," Seigle said. "Time will tell."

"We have a deficit of 2,500" out of a targeted enrolment of 16,000 for the army this year, he said. "We are hoping to reduce this, even if we cannot make up the difference entirely."

The stakes are high for France, which has deployed soldiers countrywide since a wave of jihadist terror attacks that began in 2015.

It has also invested heavily in the fight against insurgents in West Africa, recently ramping up its Barkhane force in the Sahel to 5,100 troops from 4,500.

The coronavirus outbreak also stretched the military's capacities, with soldiers rushing to set up field hospitals, organise patient evacuations, and step up surveillance of strategic sites.

- 'A second chance' -

At the Saint-Denis site, a stone's throw from the hulking Stade de France stadium, everyone wears a mask and desks are equipped with plexiglass barriers to prevent contagion.

Recruiters continued to work during the lockdown, and social media campaigns were maintained, said Patrice, deputy head of the Saint-Denis site, who like most French military personnel is allowed to give only his first name to journalists.

"We were able to start putting together candidate files using the internet, while waiting to carry out interviews in person," he said.

Among the men and women hoping to join was Mehdi, a 22-year-old who worked as a volunteer firefighter during the coronavirus outbreak.

"It was stressful to work thinking you could catch the virus, but I was helping people. That made me realise that this is what I want to do," he told AFP, wearing disposable blue gloves and a face mask.

He is aiming to join the ranks of the prestigious Paris fire and rescue brigade, which like Marseille's has the distinction of being its own military unit.

At the other end of the hall, a recruiter answered questions from Laetitia Smadja and her son Gaetan, soon to be 16, who had travelled from the eastern suburb of Bondy.

"I respect the army, it's what I've wanted to be part of since I was small," the youngster said shyly. He wants to attend the air force's technical college at Saintes in southwest France.

The lockdown measures had Gaetan's family fearing the worst. "We wondered if the applications would be accepted," his mother said. "But at the same time, it gave us time to find out more about it."

In the navy, which like the air force is aiming to hire 3,500 people this year, officials worried that alarming reports about a COVID-19 outbreak aboard the Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, which infected two-thirds of its crew, could dampen enthusiasm.

"But it hasn't had an impact on recruitment so far," said Claire, a navy ensign.

In a nearby office adorned with "Become a Sailor" posters, a masked young man told an interviewer he was hoping for "a second chance" with a career that would teach him "how to stay focused."

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