25 August 2019
The Foreign Legion offers a route for overseas nationals to eventually obtain French citizenship. Photo: Reuters
The Foreign Legion offers a route for overseas nationals to eventually obtain French citizenship. Photo: Reuters

Chinese join Foreign Legion, get French citizenship

When Li Houlin arrived in France, he was an illegal and liable to arrest and deportation at any moment. Then he did the one thing that guaranteed he would be able to stay and get on the road to citizenship – he joined the French Foreign Legion.

Formed in 1831 to fight for France outside the national territory, the Legion is mostly composed of foreigners. If applicants pass a stringent entry test – the pass rate is just 10 percent — and sign up for five years, their immigrant or criminal status is ignored. If they complete five years of service, they are given the right to live in France for 10 years and can apply for citizenship.

Of its 8,000 members, 75 per cent are non-French, coming from 100 countries, including China. Since the unit was founded by King Louis Philippe on March 10, 1831, its soldiers have been at the front line of the French military, serving in the conquest of Algeria and other Africa colonies, the wars with Germany, in Indochina and, mostly recently, fighting Islamic radicals in the deserts of central Africa.

Hu Liang has served in the legion in Mali and Chad, where he saw fierce fighting with the radicals. Of its unit of 800, 60 were Chinese. He was a student in France; when he saw no future in his academic career, he decided to join the Legion.

One of his comrades is Ma Kai, who came to France to visit his mother. “Friends of mine had served and told me about it. The wages are very high and I had served three years in the PLA in China,” he said.

Lu Gang, 34, joined in November 2012. Formerly an electrical engineer, he was visiting France at the start of 2012 when he saw in the street Chinese wearing the white ‘Kepi’ hat that is the uniform of the legion. “I asked them about their life. What they said thrilled me. That is why I took the decision.”

He immediately applied at the Legion’s headquarters at Aubagne, in southern France, but did not pass the physical test. He returned to China for six months of physical training and was accepted in November that year.

He did four months of military training, learning French and the esprit de corps essential to keep together people from so many different countries and cultures. Now he is serving in an engineering and demining unit.

The vast majority of Chinese leave the Legion after completing their five years of service. Zhang Mingjun is one of the few who decided to sign a further contract, after being recommended by his commander to be transferred to Paris and serve in an office, like a civil servant.

He is currently serving his third five-year contract, after which he will be entitled to a monthly pension of 1,000 euro.

Li Houlin earned the right to his French citizenship. He served with the Legion in the war in Yugoslavia. He was serving on a ship that was to land on the shore the next day. After an excellent dinner, he and his comrades signed their wills, which were in French, blank and gave their assets to their relatives.

The next day, after their landing, they saw fierce fighting and several of Li’s comrades were killed. After leaving the Legion, Li became a successful businessman. Then, in 2007, to the surprise of his Chinese and French friends alike, he decided to give up his hard-won citizenship and return to China because the opportunities for business were better then. “Nowadays to be a Chinese gives you a sense of superiority,” he told his friends.

The same option exists for Chinese illegals in the United States.

The first Chinese to die in Iraq was Sun Ming, 20, in December 2007. He had emigrated to the US in 1995 at the age of eight but only received his green card in 2006; all his family had problems in their application for permanent residency.

He was one of 8,000 green card holders to join the US military; by doing so, they are spared the fee of applying for citizenship and the application time is reduced. If they are killed, their families obtain citizenship in a short time.

At the time of Sun’s death, 30,000 foreigners were fighting in the US Army, most of them in Iraq. In the six years from September 11, 2001, the US granted citizenship to 32,500 foreign soldiers; 8,000 non-Americans joined up each year during that period. The US army could not obtain sufficient recruits to fight a war opposed by a majority of the population.

Like France, the US demands a high price for its precious citizenship.

– Contact us at [email protected]


Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker

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