The 4th Regiment of the Foreign Legion (la Légion étrangère) is based at the Quartier Capitaine Danjou in Castelnaudary. Under the Legion’s rules uniform must always be worn by legionnaires with less than 5 years’ service so it’s a common sight to see them in their white caps (known as képis) around Castelnaudary. They look romantic figures, evoking images of desert forts and battles with fierce North African tribes, (or is that just for anyone who read “Beau Geste” or saw “March and Die” at an impressionable age?).
This elite unit of the French Army, famous for its strong esprit de corps was created in 1831 to enable foreign nationals to serve in the French armed forces. Today French citizens are also allowed to join the Legion, although the majority of its enlisted men come from outside France with Frenchmen making up most of the officer corps.
The 4th Regiment is the only one of the Legion’s regiments to be based in south-west France and it has a reputation locally for trying to contribute to life in Castelnaudary. The legionnaires are a major part of the 14 July celebrations every year, marching down the cours de la Republique with their customary slow march. The sports facilities at Quartier Capitaine Danjou are available for locals to use at a very low cost. The Quartier itself is open on Christmas Day for visitors to see the nativity scenes that the legionnaires make (not normally an occupation associated with them). A “Miss Képi Blanc” competition is held every summer. Apart from marrying a legionnaire, this is the nearest women get to the Legion as it does not accept female recruits.
But the Regiment’s presence also provides a more intangible benefit to Castelnaudary. The latest intake of recruits at Quartier Capitaine Danjou came from 8 different countries. This mix of nationalities means that the town is used to foreigners passing through regularly. However they are foreigners subject to the Legion’s rules, which include learning French during basic training and speaking nothing but French thereafter.
It must take some doing to turn a motley bunch of young men into the famed legionnaires. A couple of years ago I saw a group of recruits running along the towpath by the Canal du Midi led by their instructor. Struggling along some way behind unable to keep up was a lone recruit with an instructor all to himself who was not going to let him stop. That recruit may have been a gasping straggler then but by now the Legion has probably shaped him into a lean, mean, fluent French speaking, fighting machine.
On the nights when the legionnaires are allowed out in Castelnaudary, one of the Legion’s military police jeeps cruises around town, its occupants scrutinising any café containing legionnaires. I’ve never seen one behaving badly.
The surprisingly endearing aspect about them is seeing what they buy in the supermarkets. These slim, fit young legionnaires in their immaculate uniforms out and about in Castelnaudary fill their baskets not with red meat, alcohol and cigarettes but with biscuits, chocolate and fizzy drinks. It’s a reminder of how just how young most of them are.