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PARIS — They speak neither Russian nor Ukrainian, and have no contacts on Ukrainian soil. Some had never even heard of the country itself until war broke out there last week.
But a growing number of French nationals are heeding Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s call to form an “international legion of territorial defense” and join Ukraine’s fight against the Russian invasion.
“Zelenskyy’s call 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 really have any animosity against the Russians … I’m going there to defend human beings, and because I have an 8-year-old child … for him, I just can’t let this happen so close to us.”
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week, French authorities have not said publicly how many people have responded to Ukraine’s call to arms. But one government adviser said it was only “a limited number,” including “a dozen” who had already entered Ukraine. The adviser suggested that some of these men could be members of “the ultra-left,” a term used in France to describe a volatile group of anti-communists and anti-fascists.
But thousands have rallied on emerging Facebook groups, including “The group of French volunteers in Ukraine” which has gathered more than 7,000 members since it was set up last week, and “Departure France-Ukraine to help civilians on the ground,” which has some 2,000 members.
Following Zelenskyy’s call for outsiders to “join the defense of Ukraine, Europe and the world,” Ukraine temporarily lifted visa requirements for foreign volunteers. Nationals from other European countries have also responded enthusiastically to Zelenskyy’s announcement, prompting Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen to permit her citizens to join the ranks of the Ukrainian army if “they think they can contribute directly to the conflict.”
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said on her Facebook page that the country had received “several thousand statements from foreign citizens who wish to join the resistance to Russian occupiers.” According to media reports, volunteers, including some from the U.S. and Canada, have traveled to Ukraine to join up with foreign legions such as the Georgian national legion, a unit formed by volunteers from Georgia who have been fighting on Ukraine’s side in the war in Donbas, which was attacked by Russian-backed separatists in 2014.
The rush to volunteer, despite the obvious risks to life and limb, recall similar movements in Europe, such as the International Brigades that were set up to support 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 speaks only French, said he had spent eight years in France’s Foreign Legion.
The new Facebook groups are filled with messages from ex-soldiers asking whether they need passports or where the closest military base is. “Hello, recently retired lieutenant colonel, several external operations, eager to leave, looking for a serious structure,” posted group member Eric Dagnicourt. Another member said he had “several years of shooting range experience” and spoke “a little bit of English.”
Still, many appeared unprepared.
“I knew where Russia was but I didn’t know about Ukraine until I saw the news on TV,” said Fabien, 23, another would-be 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 on Réunion, a French overseas department in the Indian Ocean. “I now believe Ukraine should be in the European Union and be protected.”
Fabien, who said he had watched online videos of Ukrainian families sleeping in Kyiv metro stations, acknowledged that his family “think I’m crazy.” He, and others, said they don’t mind the risks of taking part in a foreign war, regardless of the official warnings.
The French government has advised its nationals not to travel to Ukraine for obvious safety reasons.
“I could be hit by a bullet, become disabled … ” Fabien said. “But what motivates me more is to go help these people, to fight for a just cause because we don’t do enough to help them … If a war happened here, we would be very happy to have the Ukrainians protect us.”
Léon, a 20-year-old carpenter and history student, said he had no links to Ukraine other than a great-grandmother who had lived there in her youth. “I want to be part of history unfolding, see it with my own eyes,” he said. Carrying a plastic bag labeled “clothes for women,” Léon said he hoped to board a bus late Tuesday headed for Poland. He said he had heard about departures to Ukraine through an online community of video game players.
As France has sent arms to help to defend Ukraine, officials and lawyers say there is nothing in national law to prevent a French citizen from volunteering to help it militarily.
Individual volunteers could be “integrated in a body of Ukrainian volunteers,” said Hervé Grandjean, spokesperson for France’s Ministry for the Armed Forces. “We cannot prevent them from leaving, (but) nor can we sanction that type of project.”
Jean Boudot, a lawyer specialized in criminal law, noted that foreign fighters going to Ukraine would find themselves in “an atypical situation.” “I can’t imagine that in those political circumstances and with France sending arms, these people would end up being sentenced,” he said.
However, under French law, France can order a five-year jail term for “mercenaries” who are “specifically recruited to fight in an armed conflict,” are neither “from a state involved in the armed conflict” or a “member of such state’s military,” and who are paid to “participate or try to participate in the hostilities.”
“A war zone is a zone where war crimes can be perpetrated and there can also be people joining the pro-Russian side,” the government adviser said. “We are looking at it closely.”
Clea Caulcutt contributed reporting