Mel and the French Army

Mel/Mélisende is a sergent-chef in the  French Armée de Terre (land forces), equivalent to junior warrant officer in the UK forces. She chose to join as a direct entrant at the non-commissioned officer (NCO) level at 18. She could have gone to the officer training school at Saint-Cyr, but  she had itchy feet after leaving school and wanted to get going with an active career rather than buckle down to more study. She’s twice refused promotion to a more senior position because those roles include much more admin. She might think about accepting her colonel’s recommendation for a commission as an officer in the future. Her priority remains serving in a front-line role. Well, for now…

So what’s the French Army like for a woman?

Today, the French military is one of the most feminised in the world; 15.5% or 31,424 of the 202 964 military are women. Israel leads as you might expect) with 33%, with Hungary at 20% and the US 18.8% (10.9% UK for info).  French women could join the armed forces more than a century ago as part of the military health service. The first official unit of women military, nicknamed Merlinettes, worked as signals operators from 1942 based in North Africa. From 1972, women and men have enlisted under the same terms. But the percentages of women are highest in the health services (58% are women), then the airforce, and navy with the land forces trailing at only 11%.

Women have reached all rank levels, including the highest command posts. In 1976, Valérie André was the first woman appointed to the rank of general. But there are still only around twenty across all branches today.

All trades and specialities are open to women, subject to merit and ability. In 2015, the first woman battalion commander was appointed at the officer training school of Saint-Cyr. In 2015, the Navy decided to include female officers (on an experimental basis) in a crew of a nuclear submarine in 2017. Women participate in external operations on the same basis as men, but in 2015, 6.7% of the French military overseas were women as were 4% of French forces serving with UN peacekeeping operations.

Yes, there is sexism, as in all military forces, but similar to many other countries’ armed forces, there is a strong formal structure in place to combat this. Of course, these things are never as straightforward as the written regulations would have them. Mel won’t stand any nonsense in this respect, but she doesn’t have eyes open in the back of her head all the time. However, respect is gained through achievement and as in every military force, ‘You’re only as good as your last job.’

Some facts and figures…

15.5% or 31,424 of the 202 964 military are women.

6.7% of soldiers deployed in OPEX are women (opérations militaires extérieures de la France)

Arms & services Rank (across all arms)
Land forces (Armée de Terre)  11.36% Officers 14.5%
Navy (Marine Nationale)  16.11% NCOs  17.4%
Air force (Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace)  28.35% Rank and file 13.2%
Defence Health Service (Service de Santé des Armées)  57.9%

Source: 2015 social report of the Ministère de la Défense (now Ministère des Armées)

Where did Mel train?

Unlike in the British armed forces, applicants can join the French armed forces at NCO (sous-officier) level, but it’s an intense and steep learning curve! The National Active Non-Commissioned Officers School (École Nationale des Sous-Officiers d’Active, ENSOA) is a combined arms military school created by the French Army in 1963. As of 2006, the ENSOA also trains reserve NCOs. The school is located in Saint-Maixent-l’École in the Deux-Sèvres department, not that far from Mel’s Poitou home.

ENSOA provides eight months of intense military, intellectual and personal training for direct entry non-commissioned officer candidates as Mel was when she joined. They should be aged 18-29, hold a baccalauréat, (higher school leaving certificate), a higher technical certificate or a university diploma in technology. Around 45% of applicants are direct entrants; the other 55% come from the other ranks. As experienced soldiers, their conversion training is four months.

At the end of their course, subject to passing the assessment, the new non-commissioned officers are awarded a first level military certificate (CM1) and leave for specialist training in their chosen arm (army, navy air force). The ENSOA training programme is considered physically and mentally demanding, so you have to be pretty fit before joining!

From 2009, the school took over second level general training which prepares (now experienced) NCOs for advancement to the second part of their career.

And Mel, just before Double Identity?

She belongs to a specialist group of intelligence analysts attached to the special forces, based at Strasbourg. She has the reputation of determination and decisiveness. She is fluent in English, speaks some Italian and as a person of English and French parentage is equally at home with the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ mindset, an asset for liaison missions. Above all, she is an effective soldier.

A pity she’s leaving, her colonel says.

Read Double Identity to find out what happens the third day after she leaves…


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers –  INCEPTIO, CARINA (novella), PERFIDITAS, SUCCESSIO,  AURELIA, NEXUS (novella), INSURRECTIO  and RETALIO,  and ROMA NOVA EXTRA, a collection of short stories.  Audiobooks are available for four of the series. Double Identity, a contemporary conspiracy, starts a new series of thrillers.

Download ‘Welcome to Alison Morton’s Thriller Worlds’, a FREE eBook, as a thank you gift when you sign up to Alison’s monthly email newsletter. You’ll also be among the first to know about news and book progress before everybody else, and take part in giveaways.

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>




This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.