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1Representativeness first became an object of scholarly interest in English-speaking countries. [1] This article asks whether the concept could be fruitfully applied to the case of the French military, and whether the notion would meet with a response there, either within or outside the armed forces.

2The principles of representativeness are simple: an institution is representative when its social makeup and the range of its representations, values, and behaviors reflect those of a larger population of reference. Both the consensual and militant versions of the normative argument often invoked in the United States over the last fifty years, and in the United Kingdom for the last decade or so, share the assumption that, under a democratic regime, if society is diverse, a public institution benefits from being diverse as well, and could even be undermined if it is not. When it comes to the armed services, the argument goes as follows: the military must pay attention to representativeness because, more than any other institution, its legitimacy, the social and political support it needs, but also the credibility of its actions, depend on it. [2]

3The easy part ends there. Representativeness can be gauged according to a multiplicity of criteria. Whether quantitative or symbolic, the evaluation is apt to vary depending on the values and norms to which reference is made—as of today, integration, citizenship, and equal treatment vs. the recognition of particular identities, equally deserving of dignity. Representativeness is not always relevant. For example, no one worries about the difference in age average or physical aptitude between the military and civilian populations, because such differences are obviously justified by the very function of the military. The interest in the notion of representativeness actually seems to be dependent on the existence of sensitive social and/or political issues within society at large, of which the disproportionate share of African-Americans in the US military or the rise of women (in terms of both numbers and positions) in most Western militaries are classic illustrations.

4There was once a time when no one in France, whether civilian or military, cared about representativeness. Nobody seemed particularly shocked that the conscription which provided most of the troops and a small part of the junior noncoms and officers was in theory universal, and yet completely excluded women. Cultural homogeneity, relatively modest regional differences, the republican ideal that favored national interest and civic norms over individual preferences, all combined to make the question of the social representativeness of the military a non-issue. [3] The Foreign Legion was the only corps in which a balance was intentionally maintained between ethnocultural and national groups. The old fear, dating from the early Third Republic, of the threat that might be represented by an officer corps dominated by a right-wing ideology, completely lost its relevance by the mid-1960s. At most, questions emerged—without much effect until 1996 [4]—over inequalities vis-à-vis mandatory military service, as it became increasingly perceived as a chore rather than a hallowed male rite of passage or a chance to serve the nation, at a time when the number of men of draft age started to exceed actual force level requirements.

5It seems, however, that all the necessary conditions might be in place for the question to become an object of recurring debates in France, thus following the Anglo-American example. The first of those conditions is the increasingly important role diversity plays in social and political issues and concerns in France. The second has to do with a broad contextual transformation, which, to be brief, can be described as the “collapse of the integration model” (Dubet 2009) or, as others put it, a transition (if one wishes to avoid evolutionist connotations, a tension) between “classical” and “radical”—or “late”—modernity (Giddens 1990). The third condition is found in the French military’s shift to an all-volunteer organizational format a decade ago, which resulted in much lower troop levels than before.

State of the Issue and Unique Military Traits

6In the United States, the field of political sociology has produced a rich literature on the representativeness of public administrations. It started at the end of Word War II (Kingsley 1944; Levitan 1946; Long 1952; Van Riper 1958), when scholars began wondering how large public organizations which found their origin in the New Deal and a Federal State considerably strengthened by the Great Depression, later by total war, could contribute to the democratic process. The primary goal of those inquiries was to find ways to overcome the tension between bureaucracy and democracy. The idea was that once passive representativeness (i.e. of social origins) within those organizations was reinforced by the active representativeness (i.e. of values, behaviors) of their members, the question of the internal political control of administrations would become far less problematic.

7From there, activists after 1960 shifted their focus from values and the political control of bureaucracies, firstly onto the needs and interests of those among their clients who had been underrepresented (minorities, women), and eventually to their empowerment. In short, the attention given to diversity in political and administrative decision-making “multiplies the points of access to government, disperses power, and struggles to ensure a full and developed rational dialogue” (Guinier 1994, 175). This process can be hindered by the socialization of bureaucrats, who are trained to become loyal to the organization that employs them (Selden 1997). While this socialization does not seem to affect the expected outcome very much when a fair distribution of divisible public resources is at stake (Selden 1997, xiii–xiv), its impact is more significant when it comes to indivisible public goods such as the protection of the environment or national defense (Konisky 2007).

8Indeed, in this matter, it would appear that military uniqueness has to be factored in. Or so suggests the idea that, once representativeness has been achieved, public policy is shaped by the “equilibrium reached in the group struggle at any given moment” (Guinier 1994, 175). Although such a view may be relevant on certain points (for instance, the place of women, gays, or minorities), and representativeness can affect the execution of military operations, [5] it is clear that within an institution as hierarchical as the military, the scope of an individual’s discretionary action or influence [6] is more limited than elsewhere. One must also take into account the effects of military socialization. The group cohesion it seeks to generate is founded on the sense of a shared, potentially tragic, destiny that comes with the prospect of combat and creates a “brotherhood of arms” which, history suggests, tends to transcend the diversity of origins. Another unique trait related to combat is found in an acute political sensitivity to the unequal distribution of human losses, when—as has been the case for the United States at least since the Vietnam War—military recruitment is diverse and unbalanced.

9Finally, the US military is a symbolically important institution for African-Americans, [7] who have been eager to join in large numbers for more than half a century because they view it as a powerful locus of integration, [8] where discriminations are less frequent than in the private sector, and where they can acquire the moral credibility that can help them obtain the “first class citizenship” that civil society denies them. This phenomenon, however, because it is related to an ongoing stigmatization outside the military, is not ineluctable; it probably owes much to the fact that, in a nation endowed with superpower status that is the world order’s de facto ruler, military issues belong to high politics and thus enjoy a fair degree of prestige. The United Kingdom provides a counterexample on this score: with concerns about the global standing of the country took a backseat and as ethnic diversity began to grow, the military, increasingly wary of possible accusations of institutionalized racism, [9] has sought to diversify its recruitment by appealing to minorities. [10] Yet, that objective has proved difficult to achieve because the shadow of the former Empire suggests to those minorities that a reproduction of the old symbolic domination of colonial times might be at hand: the representatives of immigrant communities from the Indian subcontinent or the Caribbean demand as a precondition that any remaining symbol of the imperial era be removed from military museums and rituals.

10As a result, despite many similarities, the issue of the military’s representativeness does not exactly accord with the way the question has been treated in recent literature. It appears that early studies of representativeness in terms of internal control might be more relevant than the most recent scholarship. It is also worth noting that, because this literature does not seem to have taken much account of the emergence of identity politics, examined below, inquiry can justifiably proceed independently of it.

The Coexistence of Two Logics and its Associated Problems

11In the last three decades, a new logic developed alongside the classical modern logic that advocates equal treatment and civic discipline in the name of the old emancipatory endeavor of the Enlightenment. The new logic of radical modernity is founded on the rise of individualism, and is guided by a desire for self-fulfillment, at a time when traditional social references are vanishing. This new logic bends the equality requirement toward a recognition of the equal dignity of identity claims, in which chosen symbols and lifestyles partly replace class interests and assigned statuses. This new logic thus extends the previous one, but it is also in tension with it. [11]

12Whether the “classic” and the “radical” versions of modernity will coexist, or whether the latter will end up prevailing, the management of diversity will certainly be an issue to consider in the future for those in charge of human resources in the military. The subjective fragmentation of the old core group and the transition from assigned statuses to chosen identities will probably not happen overnight. Many will still subscribe to the old rules of integration and endorse the intentional minimizing of differences in the public sphere. The two logics—citizenship vs. chosen identity—are to some extent contrary to one another, and human resources policies will be torn between conflicting principles. While they both demand equality and the disappearance of discrimination, their opposition to one another results in part from the nature of this demand: the logic of integration views it as a goal, the more “radical” logic as a prerequisite to the assertion of identities.

13In situations of close proximity, the coexistence of the two logics can create another difficulty, already apparent in some places. Uneasiness or conflicts can arise from a number of circumstances: contrary expectations, the practical realities of a lack of privacy, a relative mutual frustration, the consolidation of stereotypes, or even harassment. [12] The controversy in the US in the 1990s over whether men and women should go through basic military training together or separately, and whether the physical requirements to serve should be the same for both groups, illustrates this point (as does the debate that recently emerged in France regarding the drawbacks of coeducation: Duru-Bellat 2010).

14In addition, it is worth asking how diversity impacts cohesion: Are contrasted identities likely to disturb the vertical and horizontal threads that constitute the fabric of the primary group? A number of recent studies have raised this question, but have not offered a consensual answer. For the classics of “military” social science, [13] primary cohesion, which is pivotal to military effectiveness, benefits from a homogenous recruitment and suffers from too much diversity (ethnic, [14] religious, generational, etc.). Furthermore, the armed services are not simply a collection of primary groups. They are organic wholes, whose cohesion and effectiveness in the pursuit of common goals demand a symbolic integration. Finally, although today’s missions often involve a degree of international cooperation and, in addition, while professional armies are less sensitive to this question than conscripted armies, armed service still has to do with national citizenship, and thus with integration. Owing to the militant activism of cultural minorities, diversity is about to become a socio-political norm that will not be easily set aside to meet the needs of functional effectiveness. [15]

15As a compromise solution, diversity at the level of units could be combined with homogeneity at the level of their elementary components. [16] This solution started to emerge in the 1990s in the United States [17] and is not unknown in the United Kingdom, [18] where, however, it has encountered strong opposition. Many seem to be uneasy with the constitution of “rainbow” units that are internally segregated. [19]

Evaluations and Implications of Representativeness

16Within the civic conception that has prevailed thus far, the evaluation of representativeness—in places where it was practiced, that is, mainly in the United States—has been quantitative. It consists in comparing ratios for each category in both the services and the general population (the latter open to different definitions). The proliferation and crossing of objective criteria (sex, race or ethnicity, family origins, level of education, region of origin, etc.) create a level of complexity that makes a synthetic evaluation “operationally unmanageable” in practice (Eitelberg 1989). [20] During the conscription era, the population of reference was society at large; under the all-volunteer force (AVF), it is most often the active population as a whole (or the pool of young people within the age range qualified to enlist). In the American case, those ratios have been used to check whether legal exemptions from the existing draft unintentionally benefited certain groups, or whether the overrepresentation of such or such a group (African-Americans and the poor during the Vietnam war) meant that it was disproportionately exposed to the dangers of combat; under the AVF, such ratios have been used to figure out whether recruitment policies were not a form of “economic conscription” of the poorest (an argument used by the proponents of a return to the draft system).

17In the case of an all-volunteer military, underrepresentation of certain groups is the sign either of a lesser propensity to enlist when compared to other groups, or of a tacit discrimination; overrepresentation is either the mechanical effect of the underrepresentation of other groups, or the sign of a greater inclination to serve. When they are too pronounced, both under- and overrepresentation can create vicious circles: the suspicion of discrimination against a particular group can further lower its propensity to enlist, while a significant overrepresentation can deter other groups from joining or staying with the services (an “eviction effect” similar to the one observed in real estate). The sociopolitical cost of both underrepresentation and overrepresentation lies in a public perception that hinders the identification of civil society with its military. Worse still, a “visible” underrepresentation can lead to accusations of “institutional racism.”

18The traditional remedies have been a better integration and an increased emphasis on equal opportunities, either embedded in the recruitment processes (“affirmative action”), imposed by the justice system (as part of the fight against discrimination), or supported by targeted actions aiming to help underrepresented groups meet requirements, possibly bolstered by ad campaigns that seek to give rise to vocations among groups in which they have been scarce.

19Radical modernity tends to replace objective and sociodemographic criteria with cultural criteria in which the subjective definition of identities plays a larger role. Representativeness then takes on more meanings and raises more questions. Official statistics are no longer sufficient to evaluate representativeness, and have to be supplemented with surveys. The assertion of identities then weakens the old regulating principle of the equal treatment of citizens, which is now perceived, at best, as formal and passive, and at worst, as a mutilation of individuality and a sign of the tyranny of a majority that imposes the use of a common yardstick.

20If this logic reaches its conclusion and destroys the previous one (something that has not happened anywhere yet), the question of underrepresentation within an AVF sounds less problematic. Society becomes a mosaic of cultural minorities, and the military one tribe among others. The assumption that all groups thus defined would feel equally close to its values and norms is not realistic, and it is to be expected that the propensity to enlist would vary among them. Moreover, the differences observed as a result of free choice would not be viewed as an issue. Thus, the military would only need to recognize the legitimacy and equal dignity of the new values affirmed by minorities who reject the domination to which their assigned status or stigmatization hitherto condemned them. The sole requirement is that all the military positions that possess symbolic value be open to them, without discrimination. The example of French servicewomen in combat roles is telling in this respect. The small number of them who have volunteered for those roles since limiting quotas were scrapped (1998) is enough to represent all women and to make the problem disappear, provided that normative systems in both the military and society at large accept the new balance. In other words, in a context of free choice and of cultural diversity based (at least in part) on subjectivity, representativeness becomes symbolic and qualitative rather than quantitative, and statistical underrepresentation is no longer considered an issue.

21Overrepresentation, on the contrary, can still remain problematic when it exceeds a certain threshold. It can raise questions about the consequences of differential losses in action, create an ideological distortion, or skew the external image in a way that can result in quantitative and qualitative recruitment shortfalls by deterring other individuals in the pool of candidates. [21] It can even introduce a bias in the way missions are interpreted and executed. Thus, while a mature radical modernity would give it more flexibility, the military would still have to remember it is a public institution subject to requirements of legitimacy, neutrality, public support and (given what can amount to considerable stakes) effectiveness in action. It must accordingly stay clear of massive imbalances if it is to avoid the kind of questions raised by high concentrations of African-American personnel in the US military.


22Based on the ideas expounded above, now applied to the contemporary French context, this article will examine two main hypotheses in light of the trends observed in the US and UK – two countries that offer a comparable, if not identical, general context, and in which the return to an all-volunteer format occurred at an earlier time. The first posits that traces exist, in the French military, of the phenomena observed above (diversity of origins, but also of values and behaviors, both in their civic and identity forms, and featuring both over- and underrepresentation), and that it is in the military’s interest to pay attention. The second hypothesis puts significant limits on the first one. Representativeness can only become a sensitive issue if it is an important object of symbolic contention within civil society: Now, the military – no longer the great symbolic institution it used to be – seems in no position to raise strong interest from the French public.

23In addition to this hypothetical lack of direct stimulation from the outside, there appear to be no major internal drivers with respect to this issue. Institutional passivity may derive from three main sources. The first has to do with the French tradition of a strong military socialization that favors unity and cohesion, which in turn tend to limit the effects of diversity (and to benefit whatever is left of the official civic logic). The second resides in the fact that the French military has experienced no serious recruiting and retention problems since it recently became all-volunteer. The last relates to the probability that minorities are more satisfied within rather than outside the military. [22]

24If all of the above is the case, the most likely outcome would be that concerns about representativeness would end up reaching the military indirectly, by contagion or capillary action, coming from areas in which it has already created controversies in the recent past.

25A few secondary hypotheses need to be formulated, which relate (by analogy with the same countries) to themes that lend themselves to questions about representativeness: The military’s social composition, servicewomen, and visible minorities. [23]

26For budgetary reasons, but also because the pool of candidates is limited, the shift to an AVF resulted in a significant decrease in force levels. This all-volunteer military is thus likely, and more likely over time, to be less representative than a larger establishment would be. [24] This could lead to a more pronounced social polarization. A limited pool of male candidates entails the possibility of recruiting difficulties that feminization can serve to alleviate: The ratio of women is increasing in every section of the military and raises the question of the transformation of institutional norms.

27Finally, two situations may emerge with regard to minorities. In the first situation, following the American scenario, minorities in pursuit of “first class citizenship” would enlist in numbers exceeding their ratio in the general population. The second, following the British scenario, would see minorities stay or be kept away from the military because of concerns about the symbolic heritage of colonization, or fears of disguised discrimination in the recruitment process.

28This article seeks to gather facts that can bear out or invalidate those hypotheses in the French case. To do so, studies published in the last decade will be used, [25] subject to updates of their data whenever more recent analyses and numbers are available. The American and British cases will serve as references.

The Military’s Social Profile

29The armed services’ social make-up, here taken to mean the family origins and education levels of military personnel, is not an object of controversy in France. Figures show that the recruiting of officers has become a bit more elitist socially and less traditional. [26] The reason behind this change is a greater selectivity at the level of admissions [27] —itself the product of a decrease in force level requirements, of efforts to open up the institution, and of the high degree of prestige enjoyed by the military (as indeed has been the case for the past three decades). While the direct recruitment of noncommissioned officers seems to have suffered from a lack of appeal after 2000, [28] it shows an adequate educational level and unchanged social origins. Reflecting a traditional state of affairs as regards volunteers, the ranks are made up of young people from working-class backgrounds, who, for the most part, did not graduate from high school.

30The combination of a more elite officer corps with ranks whose education level is below their age-group’s average, means that social distances are greater now than they were during the conscription era. The hypothesis of a greater social polarization is thus confirmed. However, the feared authoritarian turn in leadership styles that could have resulted from this widening gap did not occur, for reasons that have to do, among other factors, with the fact that officers are in part evaluated on the basis of their capacity to secure satisfactory levels of retention among the troops under their command. Similarly, the revival of officer identity attached to the renewed prestige of the military function and their involvement in operations abroad, is often limited by the uncertainty (inviting self-questioning and innovation) that characterizes those missions as well as by family lifestyles that are not that different—except for the long absences of the father and/or the mother while on maneuvers or operations abroad—from those of civilian executives at comparable levels. The ideological drift [29] that could be feared on account of the self-selection of enlistees, but also of the emphasis that human resource policies deliberately place on long term contracts, [30] has actually not been too problematic : it is counterbalanced by the fact that, because of its manpower needs, the military has to recruit beyond the pool of those unconditionally inclined to embrace the institution (its functional values and the spontaneous ideology generally associated with it). Yet, the decrease in numbers planned in the 2008 Livre blanc could limit or reverse this trend.

31The prevailing situation since the French services have had to recruit without the safety net of conscription is therefore not a cause for concern. In fact, the situation has even improved owing to the current economic crisis: The ratio of applications to the number of opened positions in the ranks has increased from 1.6 at the beginning of the 2000s to 2.1 today in the Army, traditionally less favored than the Navy and the Air Force (where the ratio rose from about 2 to about 3). Many private companies would dream of ratios of this kind at corresponding skill levels. As would some foreign military establishments which, because of unpopular current wars (US, UK), or because they are disliked by their civil society (Spain), have to recruit from among foreign residents who are promised naturalization (or even prisoners, in exchange for a pardon). However, questions can be raised as to whether an improvement of rank-and-file quality is possible – and desirable given the complexity of missions and the level of initiative they often require, especially in the Army. [31] Such an improvement would also facilitate the resettlement into civilian life of those who cannot make a complete career in the military. Currently, almost 50% of those who have left active service are still unemployed six months later, which could have a retroactive effect on recruitment.

32To avoid those difficulties, [32] a broadening of the pool of candidates for the ranks must be achieved by raising the required level of education: It should target young people who have graduated from high school but do not immediately go to college, or drop out quickly thereafter. The opposite solution that consists in appealing, on social welfare grounds, to young people in a situation of academic failure, has been tried several times in the past, in particular in the Navy and the Air Force, [33] and has not yet produced very positive results in terms of performance. [34]

33The latter approach is similar to the traditional UK practice, and contrasts with that which prevails in the United States, where, for more than twenty years, the average educational level of those who join the ranks is higher than that of civilians in the same age-group. [35] The American example stresses the benefits (even if counterbalanced by the deterrent effect of current wars on recruitment) of a “leveling-up” solution, while the British example draws attention to the drawbacks of a situation in which the services are stuck with the image of recruiter of last resort (one that is difficult to shed once it has solidified).

34Finally, it should be noted that there has been no report to date of any significant negative effect of diversity on primary or secondary cohesion, a testimony to the resilience of the culture and the power of military socialization.


35The rise of servicewomen since the draft was abolished has been remarkable: The female ratio doubled in a decade, and tripled in fifteen years. [36] Absent the safety net of conscription, everyone is aware of the benefits of having such a pool of high-quality candidates. [37] Recruiting women reduces the need to recruit men, and the services find that showing they are not a backward institution that resists broader social changes improves their public image. Although their presence in combat positions is less than their proportion in the forces as a whole, close to 25% of servicewomen have been involved in operations abroad. [38]

36It is worth noting that many servicewomen are presocialized since about a quarter of them come from military families, and nearly half of them have current or former soldiers in their immediate entourage, whether family or friends. Their normative orientation is traditionalist, as suggested by their career motivations, which are linked to a certain image of the institution: Probity, discipline, obedience, equality of treatment, hierarchy, patriotism, public service missions, and prestige. They view the military as a great and perennial institution, whose functions, structured organization, and merit-based principles provide a favorable social position and solid points of reference as much as employment security. They also perceive military life, however, as a personal challenge and an opportunity to escape the humdrum jobs that civilian women with average skill levels can aspire to. In interviews, they mention extroversion, a taste for change, travels, and field activities as further motivations. They also reveal the appeal of working within a predominantly male environment in which they are treated as a valued minority that is a source of high-quality recruitment, and fully benefit from the institution’s commitment to meritocracy. Their reaction to the prospect of a substantial increase of their ratio in the military is revealing: While they understand that such an increase would ease some of the difficulties they face, they fear that it would translate into a lowering of average skill levels among servicewomen, and could lead to a decline of their image in the eyes of their male counterparts, of society at large – and in their own eyes. They do not demand moves to redress gender imbalances in this or that sector, and much less strict representation overall (which would mean a 51.5% ratio!), as they know that this is a very unlikely outcome, even in the very long run.

37Servicewomen do express, nonetheless, a number of complaints. The main problems are symbolic in nature; they have to do with the reservations of their male colleagues, particularly in combat specialties or units, or at the service academies, where virility is a central reference and the presence of women is perceived as a frontal attack on male traditions and collective identity. Stereotypes regarding their physical and military aptitudes are another cause of complaints. Although this is not the attitude of a majority of men, it means that servicewomen have to continually prove themselves in activities that touch even slightly to the “core of the profession.” Another source of frustration is the fear on men’s part that, by way of some sort of disguised affirmative action, the promotion of women is less based on merit than their own. However, servicewomen perceive this type of male behavior toward them as a minority phenomenon. [39] The survey mentioned above showed that the larger majority of servicewomen were optimistic about the future of their presence in the military. Official sexism does not exist, and in its private form it does not seem to be perceived as virulent or widespread by the victims.

38In the face of the difficulties that remain, servicewomen tend to react in one of two ways, as their reactions to restrictions on clothing, hairdos and makeup illustrate. Some women, especially in units where there are very few of them, intentionally erase their feminine identity and demand strictly equal treatment with men; others, usually found in units and specialties where they have reached a critical mass, choose on the contrary to take advantage of the few opportunities they have to emphasize that identity.

39Mutual comparison between men and women usually produces two kinds of discourses. The first one stresses differences in aptitudes and attitudes between individuals and downplays gender differences: The awarding of positions should only depend on the inclinations, aspirations, and merit of those concerned. The other discourse, on the contrary, emphasizes them. Servicewomen are then viewed as agile intellectually, rigorous, devoted, pugnacious, resilient, and more tactful, but also physiologically more vulnerable, physically not as strong, less available, and more likely than men to crack up in critical circumstances. Although this argument runs the risk of using essentializing stereotypes, it is reinforced by a degree of plausibility rooted in the perception of averages (following the logic identified by Edmund Phelps). It would be a mistake to conclude that proponents of this second discourse are found predominantly among conservative men: Many women state that they are not opposed to a revision of service rules that would take into account gender specificities, in particular to introduce more flexibility with regard to schedules so as to allow them to fulfill the domestic roles that fall on them. Thus, there are women and men on both sides of this unofficial debate, which (if we are to believe comments posted on blogs or online forums dedicated to military topics) never seems to take an acerbic turn: The institutional adaptation took place without any major controversy.

40Thus, because the two logics previously described coexist, a certain ambivalence prevails. As equality of treatment is almost completely achieved, and the only underlying symbolic question centers on the transformation of dominant norms on some key points, the logic of identity recognition finds an expression, if a modest one. Though the values asserted are clearly on the side of integration, the minority of women serving in the military (and even more the very small minority among them holding combat roles) is construed as representing all women, without any objection from servicewomen themselves or from civil society.

The Place of Visible Minorities

41The military’s representativeness vis-à-vis visible minorities is a more sensitive topic. The quantitative evaluation of their share in the population was impossible in France until recently on account of a constitutional principle (art. 1: Equality among citizens, without distinction of objective or subjective categories) as well as of the legislative provisions and case law that specify it. While normalizing the production and use of ethnic statistics was never formally part of the public agenda, law and practice became more relaxed in the last few years. Surveys unveiled in March-April 2010 [40] broke new ground by allowing insights into the relative size of the visible minority population—pending a precise evaluation of those minorities in overseas territories. [41] On that basis, visible minorities are estimated at some 9 million French citizens, or 14%. Among 18–50 year-olds (a range very similar to that of military personnel, whose average retirement age is just under 44) they make up 2.7 million, or 10%. Finally, the 18–25 age group can be evaluated at 800,000 people, or 16%.

42The numerator of the ratio, however, is unknown. The 2004 (qualitative) study by Withol de Wenden and Bertossi remained cautious and proposed a range of between 10 and 20%. It is impossible to offer any unambiguous conclusion based on such figures. If the lower end of the proposed range is used, the numerical representation seems rather low; on the other hand, the upper end implies an overrepresentation that is more or less pronounced according to the age group (18–50 or 18–25) considered. The same survey showed that, depending on the service they belonged to, informants felt more or less strongly that they were underrepresented, but that the shift to all-volunteer recruitment had opened a period of improvement.

43We will probably know more soon. Meanwhile, what is fairly clear is that the officer corps has not seen much change yet in terms of “diversity”, and that the transformation has mainly taken place in the ranks. It is likely that the presence at that level of youths of North African origin, already attested twenty years ago in all-volunteer battalions but also among conscripts, [42] has become stronger. And this for three reasons: One is the overexposure of that group (especially young men) to the risk of unemployment because of discriminations in private sector hiring practices; another points to their overrepresentation in the public sector generally (Silberman and Fournier 2006), which suggests that the situation could be somewhat similar in the military; the last is that, unlike the British case, the postcolonial qualms that could decrease the number of candidates among them are unknown in France. Families often encourage enlistment, which is viewed as a way to escape the ghettos, and possibly as the beginning of a rise in social status.

44The problem is that promotion from the ranks is hindered by those young men’s poor level of educational attainment. [43] This is a result of the “social welfare” approach, initiated from the outside (notably by political leaders, who have come to realize how important the inclusion of youth from difficult suburbs now is), which consists in considering the military as a place for a second educational chance for purposes that, since it turned all-volunteer, it no longer answers to. The relative failure of those policies highlights the fact that a better suited strategy would be to appeal to the most qualified among this youth.

45Interviews (Withol de Wenden and Bertossi 2005) show that service members of immigrant origins embrace the values of the institution. [44] There already are soldiers in their families or circles of friends. In their case too, the reasons to enlist include a structured professional environment, prestige, but also respect. Travels, adventure, and the diversity of the jobs offered complete this picture. From the institution, they expect security and an improvement of their status—which is immediately palpable by contrast: The uniform and the stripes give them a degree of self-assurance, one that ends when, no longer on duty, they don civilian clothes. Their experience in the forces thus corresponds to their expectations.

46All of this falls within the bounds of the civic logic of improved integration, which the military favors. This is confirmed by the weakness among visible minorities of ethnic or cultural solidarities (which seem to exist only among servicemen from French overseas territories). While informants would wish the institution to be blind to their difference (which it is, to a large extent), the image they receive from those with whom they rub shoulders in the military is a source of frustration. Like servicewomen, they feel that they always have to prove themselves as “genuine” service members. Because Islam and visible minorities to a large extent intersect, informants do not appreciate it (notably in the current context of Islamic terrorism, and riots in suburban ghettos) when their loyalty is questioned. They are prepared to be deployed to countries of Islamic culture (except maybe in their family’s country of origin) provided it is to defend universal values, and do not demonstrate a particular ethnic or religious solidarity with the States and militant groups that struggle in the Middle East. They join the military because they view it “as a large-scale enterprise of social and cultural ‘laundering’, that allows them to work around discriminations thanks to the vocational training it offers” (Withol de Wenden and Bertossi 2005, 311). Unlike servicewomen, they would like to see their numbers rise because they believe the increase would improve their situation.

47This is notably the case when differences translate into lifestyles : for instance, religious or dietary practices. The services have worked toward better accommodation in those areas: They now offer alternative menu choices, and have recruited Muslim chaplains. Religious fervor is not very pronounced among recruits, [45] but the presence of those chaplains is appreciated as a token of symbolic recognition. It is much more difficult for them to participate in social events, often featuring the consumption of alcohol, that take place after shared trials and in which group cohesion finds expression (as well as a factor of reinforcement). It is so difficult for some that they prefer to leave the institution (which they do more frequently than their mainstream counterparts relatively to their numbers), but the majority stay, and many pursue a career.

48In the face of such difficulties, adjustment follows in part the patterns already seen above for servicewomen. A first discourse, centered on the deletion of differences, is republican. It can be more or less radical: Some are aware of the gap between the ideal touted and the discriminations they endure. Among them, those who keep a connection to their culture of origin tend to moderate their expectations and are realistic about the difficulties they face. Others, who are more loosely connected to their original points of references, deny the differences at the risk of being disappointed. The second discourse revolves around an assertion of identity, but a measured one that puts differences on display only in order to extract minor concessions or adjustments from officials or their mainstream colleagues. It is fueled by disappointment in the face of failures to maintain the principle of service unity, a valued principle that produces moderation.

49Thus, the strategy is not an affirmation of ethno-cultural distinctiveness and solidarity for their own sake: “[T]he goal is to impose diversity in order to be equal with everyone else, to fight prejudice and racism by reappropriating one’s assigned identity” (Withol de Wenden and Bertossi 2005, 87).

50The last discourse advocates an individualistic withdrawal, based on a trivialization of the institution. Discrimination does not matter since real life is located in the private sphere, and the military is just a job like any other—that is, primarily a source of livelihood. The authors of the survey imply that this discourse comes from suburban youths who are mainly recruited in positions that are not very “military”.

51The logic of integration thus seems to be dominant overall, although in the visible minorities’ case it does not seem to come from the kind of cultural conservatism found among servicewomen (rather, from an attachment to military brotherhood and its inclusive power). Identity claims do exist, but they seem to be more a means than an end, and the tension between the two logics is not so great as to be considered an issue.

Signs of Internal Awareness, Absence of External Influences

52The questions raised by visible minorities have recently led, internally and at the highest level, to a discreet awareness within elite schools, the officer corps, and top military officials, of the stakes behind the issue of “diversity”. [46] Probably reflecting the concerns of political leaders, military human resources management now regularly issues public statements that encompass the military as whole (i.e. including officers) when discussing the topic, and periodically touts the benefits of a “diversity” it would foolish to shun given the advantages it can bring in terms of recruitment and image (Jonnet 2013).

53Regarding external influences, comparison with the United States yields a fundamental difference (already noted in passing on another point: See note 23) that must be emphasized: There are no militant pressure groups outside the military that might inflame the debate in France. This is true of French feminists today, who advocate gender equality in political life or on the board of large companies, but are not very interested in servicewomen. In the absence of literature on this point, several (not mutually exclusive) interpretations come to mind. The most neutral is that servicewomen have benefited from an uninterrupted curiosity in the media for more than twenty years, [47] hardly need to be defended, and are not asking to be. Another focuses on the wide gap between the cultural conservatism of servicewomen and the reformist or revolutionary agenda of feminists. But the interpretation least open to doubt points to the traditional antimilitarism of feminists, who for a long time have denounced the military as an institution designed to uphold masculine domination.

54To ease the difficulties of sensitive suburbs where people of immigrant descent concentrate, policymakers have tried to prescribe a “republican” social remedy in which the military is asked to play the role of primary recruiter on the job market, and have refused to treat those groups differently from other disadvantaged youth. [48] Associations dedicated to the advancement of visible minorities are not very interested in the military either. When they do take an interest, their activism focuses on numerical representativeness and the fight against discrimination. [49] But this is a far cry from the heated controversies surrounding underrepresentation of visible minorities in political circles, elite schools, and the media.

55More generally, the dominant attitude of French society toward its military is one of “benevolent neglect” – hardly the kind that helps stimulate debates about its representativeness. The phrase “benevolent neglect” articulates the respect and trust that the military has inspired over the last twenty years, [50] but also an indifference vis-à-vis its concrete activities—a sentiment very different from what we see in the United States.

56To explain such lukewarm benevolence, reference can be made to the limited public visibility that stems from the military’s current low numbers. It should be added that the responsibility and dangers of military action no longer fall on the average citizen; that, since 1962, French leaders have refrained from launching into unpopular wars; but also that while public opinion does not count military power among its top priorities, it is careful, in the context of a depressed national morale, not to weaken it excessively—with the result that the armed forces largely escape the kind of ambivalent feelings the ubiquity of the State often generates. However, the trust and prestige bestowed on servicemen and women does not give them headline space in the newspapers, nor does it move large crowds to welcome them when they return from operations, even when lives have been lost. [51]

57The situation is quite different in the United States, where government is less present, and many citizens openly care about their military: They express their attachment to the services more spontaneously, according to a dialectic that Louis Dumont would probably have endorsed. Military power is valued as the guarantor of a world order that favors democracy (or American exceptionalism), and civil religion (Bellah 1967) easily identifies with it. It was against the background of this consensus that the clashes of values over the wars launched in the 2000s unfolded, along with their consequences. The recruitment difficulties they ended up creating ensured that functional questions, largely ignored in France, are never really absent from the conversation. On all these points, the United Kingdom occupies an in-between position.

58Thus, the comparison emphasizes the absence, in the French case, of certain necessary ingredients. It is difficult to see how in the near future these issues might occupy center stage just by virtue of their own weight. One can imagine, however, lateral effects, in which related and already opened controversies could put the spotlight on the theme of representativeness in the services. Indeed, in the recent past we have seen the beginnings of debates regarding the place of women and visible minorities in electronic media, on the boards of large companies, among elected local and national officials and political parties leaders, and within the grandes écoles and their associated prep schools. The very existence of these controversies suggests that France is not impervious to such questions. The attention they receive abroad could also create interest here. A scenario in which debates about representativeness would spread from other areas is thus possible and even probable, and, save for unforeseen developments, it seems to be the factor most likely to trigger change.


59Thus, the picture painted here on the basis of the data reviewed is ambivalent and validates our guiding hypotheses. It shows that the conditions of diversity that necessarily precede a reflection on representativeness are present and significant within the French military, and that the two postulated logics are at work within it. The attitudes and behaviors reported in interviews seem in the main to be dominated by the civic logic of integration. If such is the case, then numerical representativeness matters, and – with the caveat that precise numbers are lacking regarding the most sensitive areas (for minorities) – it does not raise real issues. Except in one case, the kind of massive imbalances encountered in the United States are as yet nowhere to be seen. The exception is that of servicewomen: As far as they are concerned, the absence of difficulties comes from the fact that they themselves, but also society at large, seem to be satisfied with their underrepresentation, in a way that partakes of the “late modernity” logic. The same goes for the polarized social makeup characteristic of the defense establishment since the last conscripts left. The free choice to enlist or not allows the armed forces the luxury of having it both ways. Dominant and adapted to the military’s traditional culture, the logic of integration is the less problematic one for it, but it also takes advantage of the tangential presence of the “late modern” logic to improve its public image.

60Because of lukewarm public opinion attitudes and the lack of interest evinced by pressure groups on the outside, the social stakes are low. But the military has begun to feel a discreet political pressure to play a more active integrative role. A long as public policies are inspired by a republican ideal, they cannot explicitly refer to visible minorities; however, sensitive neighborhoods are clearly targeted. The topic will thus remain on the table in the foreseeable future.

61Diversity is hardly ever reported to have undermined cohesion. The authoritarian or ideological drifts caused by a more polarized social makeup and an emphasis on long-term contracts that could create a gap between the military and society, are offset by other factors. The vague desire among women and visible minorities to assert their identity only gives rise to very reasonable adjustments. Interviews on this point seem to indicate, overall (as in the United States: See note 22), a more pronounced satisfaction inside than outside the military.

62If we also consider that the services have not faced any insurmountable difficulty since conscription was abolished, a push for major changes seems very improbable as concerns over representativeness are not likely to become a hot topic. The French military establishment does not offer the symbolic space of expression and confrontation that it does in the UK and (significantly more so) the US. No doubt, however, that such interest owed much in recent years, as the West returned – at their behest – to military activism, to the major participation of those two countries in “wars of choice”.

63Before drawing definitive conclusions about cultural differences between them and France, one ought perhaps to take the recent context into account. A final hypothesis can be ventured: The gap may be—in part—less a matter of fundamental differences than the manifestation of a time-lag such as can be seen in other areas. A case in point may be the possible contagion that could come from the pressures and claims that have emerged recently regarding less-than-perfect representativeness in politics, the media, selective curriculums in higher education, or the management of large firms. One should also keep in mind that the planned drawdown recommended in the 2008 Livre blanc will – barring preventive action – probably impact the military’s representativeness in a negative way.

64If such is the case, despite the more than cautious answer this article provides, the question with which it began will be well worth revisiting in future surveys. One can thus hope that this attempt at clarification will not have been entirely in vain.


  • [1]
    This Anglophone origin of scholarly interest in representativeness applies to the post-World War II period, for it was then and there (especially in the United States, but also in Canada, and more recently in the United Kingdom) that the issue grew to take the significance and form we know today, to be detailed below. This does not mean, however, that we should overlook old French debates and the literature to which they gave birth from the late eighteenth century onward: Early twentieth century anarcho-syndicalism was in part rooted in those debates.
  • [2]
    Morris Janowitz and Charles Moskos put it simply: “Can a political democracy expect to have a legitimate form of government if its military is not broadly representative of the larger society? Can a military force whose combat units are overweighted with a racial minority have credibility in the world arena?” (Janowitz and Moskos 1974, 110).
  • [3]
    From this point of view, the armed services complied with the traditional French administrative model inspired by Weber: See Calvès 2005a and 2005b. Recruited through competitive exams, the administration is at the service of the nation, and oversees rather than mirrors it. This stands in stark contrast to the American tradition, as illustrated by the 1970 congressional hearing for the confirmation of a justice to the Supreme Court, in which a senator defended a candidate accused of “mediocrity” by arguing that there were many mediocre people in the United States and that they too deserved to be represented in the Court (Eitelberg 1989).
  • [4]
    The year when President Chirac announced that the French military would go all-volunteer. The last conscripts left the services in late 2001.
  • [5]
    At the end of the 1970s, the United States refrained from sending troops to Angola to counter a Cuban intervention there, because it was feared that the number of African-American soldiers in the Army (almost 40% of the total at the time) would lead to a refusal to fight against other Blacks. On the contrary, in the international and multicultural, civilian and military, contexts in which many interventions have occurred in the last two decades, the diverse and balanced social makeup of the troop has made it easier to execute missions (Miller and Moskos 1995). It is worth noting a dissymmetry in those examples: While the effects of an active overrepresentation that could lead to bias are perceived as a threat, the benefits of a passive representativeness are celebrated.
  • [6]
    On the importance of this factor in civilian administrations, see Sowa and Selden 2003.
  • [7]
    Since the return to an all-volunteer format (1973), the number of African-Americans in the military is 1.5 to 4 times higher than in the general population, depending on the category considered (with the exception of officers) and the time period. The highest rates are found in the US Army and among women (between 38 and 47% of servicewomen over the last three decades). Other minorities, however, are underrepresented, especially Hispanics, although US citizenship is not required to enlist. While the ratio of Hispanics in the military has tripled over the last twenty-five years, it still has not reached two thirds of their ratio in the general population.
  • [8]
    The US military has been much more effective at racial desegregation (ordered by president Truman in 1948) than has American society as whole, which has been lagging 25 years behind. Military discipline, a social hierarchy rooted in ranks, a merit-based promotion system, the absence of segregation in the field and in military residences, a strong socialization that stresses cohesion, the brotherhood of arms born of the shared trials of a demanding lifestyle, but also the overrepresentation of African-Americans, combine to explain this gap. The rate of intermarriage between white and blacks, twice as high today within the military than within civil society, is an apt illustration of this more advanced integration.
  • [9]
    In the last decade, the repetition of this kind of accusation against the London police led the military to act preventively and implement an active policy to recruit minorities.
  • [10]
    See the campaigns Army’s Equal Opportunity Action Plan (1998) and Equality and Diversity Scheme 2006–2009.
  • [11]
    Giddens (1991, 9) thus describes how this extension turned tension between the two logics translated in political terms: “‘Life politics’—concerned with human self-actualisation, both on the level of the individual and collectively—emerges from the shadow which ‘emancipatory politics’ has cast. Emancipation, the general imperative of progressivist Enlightenment, is in its various guises the condition for the emergence of a life-political programme. In a world still riven by divisions and marked by forms of oppression both old and new, emancipatory politics does not decline in importance. Yet, these pre-existing political endeavours become joined by novel forms of life-political concern.”
  • [12]
    Between 2006 and 2008, the Pentagon recorded 3,000 cases of sexual harassment of servicewomen a year—that is, 1.5% of women on active duty. Because it is estimated that only 20% of cases are reported, one servicewoman out of three is thus victim of harassment in the course of her enlistment. See Couric 2009.
  • [13]
    In particular those produced after World War II: Grinker and Spiegel 1945; Marshall 1947; Shils and Janowitz 1948; Stouffer et al. 1949. In the following decades, many authors reached similar conclusions. One should note, however, that those classic conclusions concerned mass armies made up of drafted men and engaged in major armed conflicts. The question is partly changed when we consider professional militaries engaged in missions which, nowadays, do not necessarily entail fighting.
  • [14]
    A retrospective study on the effects of ethnic diversity on Soviet army operations (Ball 1994) reaches the following conclusion: “Ethnic tensions permeated the military and adversely affected Soviet military performance. Specifically, the data indicate that units characterized by a high degree of ethnic tension performed less well than units in which ethnic groups got along.”
  • [15]
    In places where it has become a dominant ideology, as in the United States, this new norm can lead to reversals that call into question what have been up to now deeply entrenched convictions: diversity is now seen as facilitating cohesion. Those new conclusions are based on the results of recent studies on civilian organizations (for instance: Webber and Donahue 2001). However, the cohesion within groups that only interact during their workday might not be exactly the same as the one needed within combat units: combat does not have a set duration and creates a shared and potentially tragic destiny. Nonetheless, it seems that the timing and the rules of the game are important factors. As the activity of the Foreign Legion suggests, diversity does not necessarily upset cohesion, provided that groups remain stable, institutional norms are solid, and socialization is scrupulously tended to.
  • [16]
    Such a compromise would reconcile the social norms now on the rise and the benefits of functional effectiveness, possibly reinforced by emulation between units, a classic motivational strategy. Based on the history of militaries following the British tradition, Kellett (1982) wrote that “[g]roup identification can be heightened by stressing competition between groups that are different.”
  • [17]
    Many American colleges, reversing a powerful trend that had begun in the 1960s, have begun to separate male and female student housing again. An official report (the Kassebaum-Baker report) recommended the same policy for the services, not only regarding housing but also basic military training. This report turned out to be very controversial and only led to limited applications. It argued that we must take into account gender differences without undermining the cohesion of groups. To avoid reinforcing inequality by separating genders, it recommended that an instructor of the opposite sex always be present and that men and women units be paired in joint operations.
  • [18]
    In the United Kingdom, the Royal Military Academy trains women within homogenous female units. There were discussions recently about reforming the old and glorious Sikh Regiment of the British Indian Army, which would have solved a number of problems (including the wearing of the traditional turban). This project was debated in the media and was finally abandoned to avoid accusations of racism.
  • [19]
    In recent years, for instance, the United States has seen bitter reactions to the “separate but equal” idea, denounced as a return to the segregation that preceded Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) and the civil rights revolution of the 1960s.
  • [20]
    Because of co-occurences that can at times be substantial (for instance, see note 7 about African-American servicewomen). At stake is an evaluation that is readily understandable by the public at large: the evaluation based on chi-square may not mean much to non-experts.
  • [21]
    As the American case illustrates, however, if a minority overrepresented in the military is, overall, at a disadvantage within society, a contrary argument emerges: why should it be denied the right to benefit from the existence of a public institution in which discriminations are monitored more systematically and less prevalent than elsewhere?
  • [22]
    And thus would not be very inclined to question its governing principles. That is the case in the United States: employment satisfaction is higher among minorities and women in the military than among their civilian counterparts—and among white male service members as well. Lundquist (2008) adds that the mechanisms of reference groups and relative deprivation explain this situation better than the competing explanation positing that particular cultural influences make those groups more likely to enjoy service life : conditions in the military are more favorable to minorities and less favorable to whites than those that prevail in civil society.
  • [23]
    Homosexuals could be added to the list, but – in the interests of conciseness, as well as because it is not the object of a heated controversy in France – this question will not be dealt with here. Contrary to the United States where gay groups twice (in 1992 and 2008) ensured that the issue of their place and status in the military be included in the platform of the Democratic presidential candidate, and eventually demanded that the promises made to them be enacted into law, gay activists in France are not interested very much in the military and gay servicemen and women seem to be attached to the official policy that views sexual orientation as a matter irrelevant to the public sphere. Little-known is the fact that this traditional French practice became an explicit reference for those who (like Charles Moskos) inspired the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy implemented in the United States during the Clinton presidency. That this policy is now questioned in the name of identity politics, and was recently modified in that direction, can be interpreted as an assertion of the radical modernity logic on this point.
  • [24]
    The number of British troops has decreased, intentionally or not, every year since they became all-professional again (1963), except during the years 1982–1983 and 1990–1991, thanks to a burst of patriotism related to the Falklands War and the first Gulf War. The US military followed a similar, although less linear trend. In France, at the end of 2005, 2.2% of military positions were left unfilled and the 2008 Livre blanc plans a 15% decrease over the next few years.
  • [25]
    Belmokhtar and Léger 2000; Bertrand et al. 2008; Boëne 2002; Haddad 2005; Rapports annuels du Haut comité d’évaluation de la condition militaire; Léger 2002; Monrique 2004; Observatoire de la féminisation, 2006; OSD 2004 and 2008; Withol de Wenden and Bertossi 2005.
  • [26]
    At Saint-Cyr [the elite military academy], for instance, the rate of endorecruitment (defined as the rate of Saint-Cyr students whose father is a serviceman) fell to an average of 22% for the last ten cohorts, while it had been around 30% during the previous period. The rate of transfers to civilian activities after a few years of military career, which used to be very low, is rising. See Lardemelle 2009.
  • [27]
    The recruiting of officers has decreased by 12.5% since 2000. The admission rate has decreased from 1 out of 7.5 for the period 2000–2005 to 1 out of 9 in 2008 (1 out of 15 for career officers who attended les grandes écoles) while it had stagnated around 1 out of 5 for a long time. Source: Haut Comité d’évaluation de la condition militaire, 2007 and 2010 reports.
  • [28]
    The ratio of non-commissioned officers recruited directly was of 6.4 applicants for each position opening in 1998 and had fallen to 3.1 in 2008. It rose back to 4 for 1 in 2009, a consequence of the economic and social crisis. The reason for this lack of interest seems to be found in a high degree of relative deprivation vis-à-vis volunteers in the ranks. The basic pay for rank-and-file volunteers is slightly higher than the median wage for young unskilled civilians, with the result that the difference in pay that used to exist between young non-commissioned officers and the conscripts of old has been dramatically reduced. Charles Moskos (1977) had observed a similar deprivation on the part of NCOs in the United States, shortly after the return to an AVF (1973) and for the same reasons.
  • [29]
    An old American study showed that, controlling for education levels, the number of years already spent in the military or the goal of making a full career in it are statistically linked to a more pronounced ideological conservatism. See Bachman et al. 1977.
  • [30]
    The Army, for instance (it is not as clear for the Navy and the Air Force), seeks to retain servicemen for eight years. Those long contracts are meant to address two concerns: securing troop numbers (by retaining existing volunteers the burden of recruitment is lessened) and saving on initial training.
  • [31]
    The Anglo-American scholarship in military sociology is rife with references to the “downward delegation” of decision-making and the necessity to increase the ability of the lowest ranks to take initiative in the context of counter-insurgency and peacekeeping missions that are characterized by a dispersion of troops on the ground and a heightened political sensitivity to their actions. This certainly applies to the French Army, even more so now that it has begun recruiting half of its non-commissioned officers from the ranks. The situation is different in the Navy and even more so in the Air Force, that are more technical, and where the ranks are a minority, for the most part in charge of service and maintenance duties.
  • [32]
    One of them is the attrition rate due to contracts disputed within the first six months. Since 2005, this rate of attrition is about 25% in the Army when it was barely above 15% a decade ago.
  • [33]
    MTAs (Air Force technicians) in the 1990s and EICDs (non-prior service short-term enlistees) in the Navy during the 2000s created issues of adaptation to military life.
  • [34]
    This seems to be an invariable outcome. Not only does this “social welfare” approach tend to have a negative effect on recruitment (following the logic that Charles Moskos pleasantly summarized with a reference to a famous Groucho Marx quote: “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member”), but it does not produce the expected results from a functional point of view, as was demonstrated by the first large scale experiment, MacNamara’s famous Project 100,000 in 1966 in the United States. It is much more advantageous to the military to target, among underprivileged youths, those who demonstrate abilities and ambitions, whom it can provide with a “social ladder” more likely to improve both their self-worth and the military’s public image as well as to ensure a better quality of performance while offering models of integrated roles to the entourage of the recruits. See Jonnet 2013.
  • [35]
    Since the end of the Cold War, the proportion of high school graduates there has consistently been higher than the average for the corresponding age-group in the general population. This US policy is based on the observation that there is a reverse correlation between education levels and the occurrence of discipline breaches, unauthorized absences, or early resignations. This statistical link is generally explained by the fact that those who successfully went through a regulated institutional life at school are more likely to succeed doing the same in the military. As is often emphasized, such a policy also seems to benefit the capacity for initiative among recruits.
  • [36]
    Servicewomen now represent almost 15% of the number of troops and, in the last decade, 19 to 25% of new recruits. The differences among services or joint agencies are significant: women represent 48% of Joint Health Service personnel, 21% of the Air Force, far ahead of the Navy (13%) and the Army (12%). They represent 14% of the largest group, non-commissioned officers (a category to which more than half of them belong), 15% of the rank-and-file volunteers, and 10% of the officers (5% of the field officers). They are four years younger on average, and more often unmarried (56%) than men (38%). Their divorce rate (7%), twice as high as that of males, suggests that reconciling military and family life is a challenge for them (cited as their main cause for resignation in the 2007 report of the Haut Comité d’évaluation de la condition militaire), a challenge that is itself related to the unequal distribution of domestic chores within French couples.
  • [37]
    70% of servicewomen graduated from high school (compared to about 55% among men), and the difference is clearly in their favor when one looks at the education level among the volunteers who join the ranks.
  • [38]
    Nearly 30% of servicewomen are assigned to operational units, but that does not mean that they have combat roles within those units. A battalion of Alpine Troops that came back from Afghanistan in July 2010 counted about 800 men for only 20 women.
  • [39]
    The 2004 OSD survey, the source of this data, revealed that 86% of them felt they were considered “true” soldiers by their male counterparts, although 40% (that is, 6% less than in a similar 1999 survey) thought that they were excluded from some military activities.
  • [40]
    Trajectoires et origines, conducted jointly by the INED and INSEE, the survey from INED was conducted with the team behind the survey previously cited, Les Discriminations: une question de minorités visibles. We should add Catherine Borrel and Bertrand Lhomeau, “Être né en France d’un parent immigré,” Insee Première 1287 (2010): 1–4.
  • [41]
    INSEE, Tableaux de l’économie française, 2010, Population by age.
  • [42]
    The questions raised by the sudden increase of the number of conscripts of North African origin had been addressed in the Biville Report, Armées et population à problèmes d’intégration: le cas des jeunes Français d’origine maghrébine (Compiègne, France: Centre d’études sur la sélection du personnel de l’armée de terre, 1990).
  • [43]
    It is not the case for young women of immigrant origins, two thirds of whom are high school graduates (thus almost the same ratio as in the general youth population). The interviews conducted by Withol de Wenden and Bertossi revealed that those women enrolled for reasons different from those of their male counterparts, and were more affected by gender-based than origin-based discrimination.
  • [44]
    “Citizenship, national identity, and republican values are notions very present in the discourse of the informants, and more particularly among young recruits, who are proud to be French and to serve France” (Withol de Wenden and Bertossi, 2005, 304)
  • [45]
    On this point, the same source states: “Religious practice is a matter of individual choice, performed discreetly and with respect toward secular principles, without proselytism. It is not an identity-oriented Islam nor a community-oriented Islam, but a matter of individual choice […]” (Withol de Wenden and Bertossi, 2005, 311).
  • [46]
    See the debate launched in Le Casoar (the review of Saint-Cyr alumni) beginning in 2007, and concurring statements by Hervé Morin, then minister of Defense, all of this relayed by the media and specialized blogs.
  • [47]
    This interest dates back to Emmanuel Raynaud’s book Les femmes, la violence et l’armée (1988), which had been featured on the cover of the daily newspaper Libération when it was released. Since then, TV shows dedicated to the topic of servicewomen have become a prosperous industry. This interest has spread to university professors and their students: studies and theses on the topic are countless.
  • [48]
    This link appears clearly in the Ministry of Defense’s 2007 “Plan égalité des chances” [Equal opportunity program], which targets youths from difficult suburbs by including them in the assistance provided to all underprivileged youth.
  • [49]
    The day after the July 14, 2007 parade, the chairman of the Comité représentatif des associations Noires de France [Representative Committee of French Black Associations (CRAN)] sent an open letter to the Président de la République with the title “Why does the French military prevent Blacks from holding high command positions?” (Patrick Lozès, in La Conscience, July 2007, quoted by Bertrand et al. 2008).
  • [50]
    See respondents’ answers to Ronald Inglehart’s survey question on the trust and respect for 16 institutions and professions, in the which the military—in France as elsewhere in Europe—is regularly featured among the top choices, for instance in the annual releases of the Eurobarometer. On public opinion and Defense in France, see Jankowski 2008.
  • [51]
    In a recent op-ed in the newspaper Le Monde (June 22, 2010) an officer complained about the meager assistance provided when the bodies of soldiers fallen in Afghanistan come back to France, contrary to what is done in the United States, Canada, and elsewhere.

Debates on the representativeness of bureaucracies with regard to various measures of the national population first came to the fore in English-speaking countries. This article's intent is to identify the causes or reasons that may turn it into a lively issue in France when it comes to the armed services, compared where relevant with the U.S. and British militaries. To that end, it succinctly reviews the relevant literature, and specifies the concept's two (early and late modern) interpretations. Having detailed the measures to which they give rise and the kinds of problems raised by their uneasy coexistence, the article then examines, based on studies published in the last decade, the aspects that (as suggested by U.S. and British realities and studies) best lend themselves to a hypothetically heightened interest in, and sharper debates on, that issue in France: the armed forces' social composition, servicewomen, and visible minorities. It concludes on a cautious, nuanced note : despite evidence of numbers and developments that point in the direction conjectured, and the continued dominance of early- over late-modern outlooks, a series of factors – notably the absence of intractable problems in the French all-volunteer force, strong adherence to institutional values inside the services, and lack of interest in the military from activists on the outside – have so far inhibited serious concerns of that type. Yet, it does not exclude the possibility of change due to a projected drawdown, and potential contagion from other sectors of French society (the media, elected officials or party leadership, corporate board members, the grandes écoles and their prep schools) where representativeness is already an issue.


  • Armed services
  • representativeness
  • France
  • United States
  • United Kingdom
  • early and late modernity
  • social composition
  • servicewomen
  • visible minorities

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Bernard Boëne
Emeritus Professor at the University of Rennes, Chancellor of the Geneva Graduate School of Governance, co-editor of the bilingual e-journal Res Militaris.
Université de Rennes-II
Groupe de recherche sur la sécurité et la gouvernance
(Université de Toulouse-I),
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