The French Foreign Legion is shrouded in dark romance, myth and legend. For 188 years, the enigmatic mercenary branch of the French military, often comprising lost souls with hidden pasts and dark secrets, has fought in dirty wars and colonial skirmishes across the globe. Now, for the first time, a Kiwi legionnaire has been publicly identified while still serving, patrolling the streets of France in Operation Sentinelle – the military operation deployed after the 2015 terror attacks. Kurt Bayer spoke to a fresh-faced Southland carpenter who fled home searching for the ultimate boy's own adventure.
Small backpack slung over wide shoulders, the young man, looking like a millennial hobo, paused before entering the imposing stone archway. This was it, he knew, no turning back. The famous wooden door lay just a few strides away. And once he knocked on there, he would be transported into a new world, a militarised land of Narnia where his head would be shaved, his shiny new passport confiscated, along with all of his meagre possessions and branded with a new identity.
The French Foreign Legion. For Zane Leslie, and thousands of young men before him, this was a day he'd been dreaming of for years. Ever since 1831, when it was founded to fight France's colonial wars and not spill any native blood, it's attracted young men like Leslie. The chance to run away. Action. Murderers, misfits, double-crossers, fugitives, devilish rogues and thugs. They could knock on this door and disappear without a trace. In exchange, they were then the property of the most famous school of second chances; to be broken down and rebuilt as ruthless warriors through a draconian, tough training regime.
Even though he had done his research and planned this day for years, Leslie was nervous. Just how savage was it going to be? Would he be homesick? What if he couldn't hack it? The 25-year-old swallowed hard.
Growing up in Southland, Leslie made the most of exploring one of the world's great backyards. The confines of high school in Balclutha weren't for him ("I didn't have a good attention span. And I always had something to say.") and he left at 16 to get a trade. Hunting, motorbikes, 4WDs, he loved getting off the beaten track. On those long forays into the bush, he'd dream of joining the Army and testing himself as a soldier.
But after 12 bloody years in Afghanistan where 10 Kiwis died, he knew the New Zealand Defence Force, and general public, had little appetite for fighting any more wars on foreign shores any time soon. And, like many young men who sign up for the military, that's exactly what he was after. So when a builder boss, an ex-New Zealand Army veteran, mentioned the French Foreign Legion, Leslie knew he had found his calling.
He devoured all he could find about the famous fighting corps. In World War II – where Leslie's grandfather served - about 40 men fought for France, with many in the Legion, while in World War I at least four Kiwis volunteered, including the legendary Dunedin-born James Waddell decorated with the Croix de Guerre for his gallantry at Gallipoli and again at Verdun and the Battle of the Somme. In 2010, an "ordinary Auckland boy" Eamon Tolhurst, 19, disappeared and stunned his parents by signing with the French Foreign Legion.
Leslie was all in. He trained hard, smashing out hundreds of press-ups with ease. He completed his carpentry apprenticeship, waited another 18 months for his competency, and he was ready. His parents knew his plans. And while they were initially mortified at the prospect of their son's big dreams, and the fact he could be shot, bombed, or mortared on the other side of the planet, they slowly came to accept it.
After his first-ever passport arrived in the post, he booked a one-way airline ticket to Paris and said bon voyage to his family and friends. He'd never been overseas before.
On landing in Paris, the great European metropolis still unsteady three years after a series of deadly terrorist assaults, he headed straight for Fort de Nogent-sur-Marne – one of the Legion's two recruitment offices – in a 19th-century fortress.
He knocked on the door. A voice yelled at him in a foreign tongue and after his silence, someone asked in English why he was there.
"I'm here to join," he said.
Led inside, unknown men took his light backpack, passport, phone, wallet and driver's licence. Then, they shaved his head. He was reduced to nothing.
Looking around him, Leslie was surprised to see so many other wide-eyed young men just like him. Except he couldn't understand a word they said. He was the only English-speaker in a sea of Nepalese, lots of Brazilians, Russians and Ukrainians.
Then came a series of intensive, rigorous examinations and interviews: fitness tests, medical tests, teeth and back x-rays, blood tests, background checks.
On the second day of interrogations, he was given a new identity: Antony Lovassen.
"They know everything about you, looking deep into your past," says Leslie in his strong Southland drawl, rolling his Rs. "Anyone they're not 100 per cent sure on, they're not coming in. I know a lot of people with sketchy pasts who didn't get in. Gone are the days of rapists and murderers on the run hiding in the Legion."
After weeks of probing and waiting, Leslie was packed off to Aubagne near Marseille for another fortnight of tests. More prospects were culled. Only about 20 per cent of his intake made it. They bussed survivors to Castelnaudary, between Toulouse and Carcassonne, for the Legion's four-month recruit course.
Leslie was prepared for the worst. A hulking figure, standing 194cm and weighing 110kg - about the same specifications as All Blacks legend Kieran Read – he wondered if he'd come in for special attention from the sadistic instructors. He'd heard the stories, the controversies. How, in January 2016 six recruits - an Albanian, a Hungarian, a Nepalese, a Moldovan, an Italian and a Madagascan - perished in an avalanche during a training exercise. And in 2008, a 25-year-old Slovakian died of a heart attack caused by sunstroke during desert training in Djibouti.
But throughout it all, Leslie held his own. Holding the press-ups position for two hours. Hundreds of "tick-tacks" – savage, one-footed leaps from the squat position. Sleep deprivation and pack marches through the night followed by days of sports activities and marching late into the darkness again singing regimental songs. Some recruits would collapse asleep mid-stride.
"It's just abuse. Very soon you think you can't finish it. And that's when they push you," Leslie says.
Inspiration came from fellow recruits. He recalls seeing a tiny 50kg Nepalese comrade march past him carrying 70kg in kit. "He was not giving up. And I was like, 'Hmm. This is all in your head.'"
"It was all mental toughness. I realised that even when it hurts, the reality is that it doesn't really matter. That boundary that I used to think I needed to get by – it was gone. You can get by on so little for so long."
An integral part of training is learning about the Legion's traditions and history. Key to that is the story of the last stand at the Battle of Camaron. In 1863, just 65 soldiers of the French Foreign Legion, led by Captain Jean Danjou, defended a tiny besieged house against 3000 Mexican infantry and cavalry. Surrounded, Danjou urged his men to "take an oath to fight to the death rather than surrender" and made them swear on his wooden hand. The last five men, spent of ammunition, made a last desperate bayonet charge. When it was all over, a Mexican commander declared, "These are not men! They are demons!"
That "fight to the last man" mentality remains today. "It's really important," Leslie says. "You can't forget the function of the Legion, which was for the wars in colonial Africa because the French people didn't want their sons dying over there. That 'go to the last breath and never give up' attitude is still a majorly important thing."
At the very end of Leslie's training came the infamous Marche de Kepi Blanc – a gruelling two-day romp in full kit. After that, he was a fully-fledged Legionnaire and awarded his Kepi Blanc, the coveted white cap.
Leslie was posted to the 13th Demi-Brigade (13th DBLE) infantry regiment late last year, which found fame for its remarkable World War II exploits, fighting in Norway's frozen fjords, to the heat of African and Middle East deserts, up through Italy and into France before chasing diehard Nazis into Germany.
But it's been somewhat of a frustrating 2019 for Leslie. He's itching for a posting abroad and is biding his time on training exercises. While he's enjoyed conducting patrols clutching a sub-machine gun for Operation Sentinelle, firstly at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport and now near Nice, he's more than ready for some action. He's highly-trained, well-prepared and wants to get his hands dirty. And his eyes are wide open to just what combat entails.
"If you're in the Army and there's a war, you are in first. That's why you signed up in the first place," he says.
"But war is 65 per cent luck. If you think about what an enemy throws at you in a war situation, especially today – artillery, mortars, long-distance rocket-propelled missiles, drones… there's a huge amount of things that can hit you, from kilometres away. There's so much luck.
"If you make it and you do something good, then you might get some medals, but the reality is, it seems to me, that if you go into war and survive, then generally you come out with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], which you have to deal with for the rest of your life. It's the sacrifice we make so we can keep the lifestyle we have here in France or back in New Zealand the way it is."
Premier class Leslie says he's discovered a lot about himself – "where the limit is" – and isn't sure he would've found that in the New Zealand Army.
The camaraderie and friendship is another major drawcard. One of his closest friends is a former gangster from Japan. For months they trained alongside each other without being able to speak the same language. Now they both speak French – compulsory in the Legion – and are best mates.
"He's literally like my brother. We've been through so much garbage and punishment together," he says. "You hear stories about there being some hard people in the Legion, well he's one of those people. Some of the friends I've made here, I don't think I would've crossed paths with them in civilian life."
Unlike others who've joined the Legion for financial reasons, or to escape their past or family and relish hiding behind their new identity, Leslie isn't one of those. He's an intelligent, enthusiastic, well-rounded and balanced young Kiwi, who enjoys ringing his parents after a day's work in the green beret and getting the news from back home.
He has no regrets so far. With a starting salary of about NZ$2070 a month, tax-free, with free accommodation, food and clothing, he sees himself as a Legionnaire for at least five years. It's likely he'll re-sign and try and become an officer. After three years, he can apply for French citizenship.
"I want to make a career out of it," Leslie says. "I really like it and there's not a civilian job that I want to do."
WHAT IS THE FRENCH FOREIGN LEGION?
* An elite, foreign-born volunteer military unit renowned for breaking individuals physically and psychologically and recoding them to be fearsome fighters.
* It was specifically created in 1831 for foreign nationals who wished to serve in the French Army under French commanders.
* Recruits number about 8900 men, comprising more than 140 nationalities.
* Prospective recruits go there "to forget" and are stripped of passports, possessions and, at least initially, contact with the outside world.
* Recruits assume a new identity and can instruct the Legion to refuse to confirm their service with relatives.
* A Legionnaire can apply for French citizenship after three years' service.