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PARIS – You speak neither Russian nor Ukrainian and have no contacts on Ukrainian soil. Some had never heard of the country itself until war broke out there last week.
But a growing number of French nationals are heeding that of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Call to form an “international legion of territorial defense” and join Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian invasion.
“The call from Zelenskyy inspired us to leave,” said Joe, a 48-year-old driver who showed up with five other men at the Ukrainian embassy in Paris on Tuesday. “I don’t actually have animosity towards the Russians…I go there to defend people and because I have an 8-year-old kid…for him I just can’t let that happen that close to us.”
Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine last week, French authorities have not said publicly how many people have responded to Ukraine’s call to arms. But a government adviser said there were only “a limited number,” including “a dozen,” who had already entered Ukraine. The adviser suggested that some of these men might be members of the “ultra-left,” a term used in France to describe a fugitive anti-communist and anti-fascist group.
But thousands have gathered in burgeoning Facebook groups, including “The Group of French Volunteers in Ukraine” which has gathered more than 7,000 members since its inception last week, and “Leave France-Ukraine to help local civilians‘, which has around 2,000 members.
After Zelenskyy’s call for outsiders to “join the defense of Ukraine, Europe and the world,” Ukraine said temporarily cancelled Visa requirements for foreign volunteers. Citizens of other European countries have also responded enthusiastically to Zelenskyj’s announcement, prompting Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to do the same to permit its citizens to join the ranks of the Ukrainian army if “they think they can contribute directly to the conflict”.
This was announced by Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar their facebook page that the country “has received several thousand statements from foreign citizens who want to join the resistance against the Russian occupiers”. According to media reports, volunteers, including some from the US and Canada, have traveled to Ukraine to join foreign legions such as the Georgian National Legion, a unit made up of volunteers from Georgia who fought on Ukraine’s side in the war in Donbass, the Attacked by Russian-backed separatists in 2014.
The rush to enlist, despite the obvious risk to life and limb, is reminiscent of similar movements in Europe, such as the International Brigades formed in support of the Soviet-backed republican cause during the Spanish Civil War in 1936-39.
To register via an official Ukrainian conscription form, volunteers must have a valid passport, some military experience and a clean criminal record. Joe, who only speaks French, said he spent eight years in the French Foreign Legion.
The new Facebook groups are filled with messages from ex-soldiers asking if they need passports or where the nearest military base is. “Hello recently retired Lt. Col., multiple external operations, ready to go, looking for serious structure,” wrote group member Eric Dagnicourt. Another member said he had “several years of shooting range experience” and spoke “a little English”.
Still, many seemed unprepared.
“I knew where Russia was, but I didn’t know anything about Ukraine until I saw the news on TV,” said Fabien, 23, another potential volunteer outside the embassy in Paris. He said he spent most of his six years as a cook and mechanic on a French military ship in Réunion, a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean. “I now believe that Ukraine should be in the European Union and should be protected.”
Fabien, who said he watched online videos of Ukrainian families sleeping in Kyiv metro stations, admitted his family “I think are crazy”. He and others said they did not object to the risks of participating in a war abroad, official warnings notwithstanding.
The French government has advised its nationals against traveling to Ukraine for obvious security reasons.
“I could get hit by a bullet, be disabled…” Fabien said. “But what motivates me more is to help these people fight for a just cause because we are not doing enough to help them… If a war broke out here, we would be very happy if the Ukrainians would protect us .”
Léon, a 20-year-old carpenter and history student, said he has no ties to Ukraine other than a great-grandmother who lived there when she was young. “I want to be part of the unfolding story, to see it with my own eyes,” he said. Léon carried a plastic bag marked “Clothes for women” and said he hoped to board a bus to Poland late Tuesday. He said he heard about departures to Ukraine through an online community of video game players.
Since France has sent arms to help defend Ukraine, officials and lawyers say there is nothing in national law to prevent a French citizen from volunteering to help him militarily.
Individual volunteers could be “integrated into a group of Ukrainian volunteers,” said Hervé Grandjean, spokesman for the French military ministry. “We can’t stop them from leaving, (but) nor can we sanction this type of project.”
Jean Boudot, a lawyer specializing in criminal law, noted that foreign fighters traveling to Ukraine would find themselves in “an atypical situation”. “I can’t imagine that these people will end up being convicted under these political circumstances and in view of France’s arms deliveries,” he said.
Under French law, however, France can order a five-year prison sentence for “mercenaries” who are “specifically recruited to fight in an armed conflict” who are neither “from a state involved in the armed conflict” nor “a member of the state military.” ‘ and who are paid to ‘take part or attempt to take part in the hostilities’.
“A war zone is an area where war crimes can be committed and where people can also join the pro-Russian side,” the government adviser said. “We’re looking at it closely.”
Clea Caulcutt contributed coverage
https://www.politico.eu/article/france-volunteer-rally-zelensky-call-join-war-ukraine/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication French volunteers rally on Zelenskyy's call to join war in Ukraine - POLITICO