If President Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives have their way, French teenagers will one day swear their allegiance to the defense of France _ a sort of muscular French take on the U.S. Pledge of Allegiance.
Fifteen years after France ended obligatory military service, Sarkozy's UMP party wants to tighten the binds between the nation and its military by requiring rising 18-year-olds to declare "allegiance to the arms" of France.
But critics see political posturing: France will hold both presidential and legislative elections next year, and they say the purely symbolic idea is aimed to help conservatives siphon off voter support from a resurgent far-right.
Many French take pride in their military _ France and Britain are western Europe's top military powers _ and the national anthem includes the combative cry: "Aux armes, citoyens!" (To arms, citizens!).
The debate about the military in nuclear-armed France, a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, has already been part of the election campaign. Green Party candidate Eva Joly drew criticism over the summer after saying the annual Bastille Day military parade should be abolished _ and replaced by a "citizens parade.". Segolene Royal, who lost to Sarkozy in 2007 and is once more vying for the Socialist Party nomination, has recently revived her longtime call for the creation of military-styled boot camps for juvenile delinquents.
Under the UMP idea, French teenagers would "make mention of 'the allegiance to the arms' at the national day of call to defense or at the time of acquiring French nationality," the party says on its Web site. A law passed last year requires French teens to attend a one-day program, called the "day of defense and citizenship," to learn about the military and civilian service.
Interviewed on French TV Wednesday, UMP chief Jean-Francois Cope said the new proposal strikes at "the issue of loyalty that is asked of every French person ... in the hypothesis that the country is under threat."
The proposal was one of 29 laid out at a party conference on defense issues Tuesday. Others included a call to explore new military alliances, such as with Russia, and expressions of support for France's defense industry.
The "allegiance" idea has already sparked grumbling within the UMP: Defense Minister Gerard Longuet reportedly has said the term bothers him, and Education Minister Luc Chatel said it wasn't "necessarily appropriate."
At the UMP meeting, Cope called for a "vow of commitment, or allegiance, the term doesn't matter ... for each young French person to show he's ready to commit to the country if the circumstances require it."
"It's the famous phrase of John Kennedy: 'Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,' behind this proposal," he added.
Cope, who has already declared his desire to run in the presidential race in 2017, has clout in the UMP: He was behind a controversial law enacted in April that banned face-covering Islamic veils in France, also seen as by some critics as a sop to France's far-right.
But Marine Le Pen, the head of the far-right National Front party, took issue with the "allegiance" proposal: She told reporters the focus should be on national service and "it seems utopian to me to think that a simple pledge would be enough."
"And then there's this Americanization of political life _ in whatever area it may be _ it's really starting to annoy me," she said in remarks on French television.
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