WHEN Sweden brought back conscription at the start of this year, it was a direct response to rising tension in the Baltic region and the difficulty of recruiting soldiers. Now France, too, is debating the reintroduction of military service, which the country used to require of all young men until it was abolished by the Gaullist President Jacques Chirac in 1997. Unlike in Sweden, however, it is far from clear what the point in France would be.

During his election campaign last year, Emmanuel Macron (who is too young to have had to do it himself) promised to bring back compulsory military service, if only for a month. It would apply, he said, to all men and women, and take place in the three years following an individual’s 18th birthday. Nothing detailed is yet on the table. Yet in recent declarations the president has begun to talk about a “universal national service”, which might be partly “civic”, but would involve some unspecified “exposure” to military affairs. Unlike the Swedish system, in which conscripts serve for nine to 12 months, the French version, said Mr Macron, would now last from three to six months. He has put a general in charge of rolling out the idea.

Some three-fifths of the French approve of the plan, according to one poll. And Mr Macron seems determined to press ahead. But the defence establishment is distinctly unkeen. The army faces no particular recruitment problem. It is already stretched by operations in the African Sahel and the Middle East, as well as patrolling the streets in France. When Mr Macron refers to the need for “national cohesion”, or calls his plan a “project for society”, military types see red. They have no wish to act as a sort of glorified social service to the 600,000-800,000 young people who would be covered each year, nor to enforce attendance on the unwilling. “If you cannot tell young people that this is a national defence imperative, it will be very difficult to coerce them,” notes François Heisbourg, of the Foundation for Strategic Research, who is sceptical about the idea.

There are concerns about the budget, too. Mr Macron originally estimated costs for his one month’s military service at €2bn-3bn ($2.4bn-3.7bn) a year, amounts that were steep enough. Yet he also referred during the campaign to an investment cost of €15bn-20bn, vast sums that, if serious, would amount to half the annual French defence budget. Some suggest that the numbers were slipped into the candidate’s speech by defence advisers eager to make the idea appear unworkable. More recent estimates suggested that the cost of building 18 regional centres across France, in order to take in 4,500 young people for a month at a time, would be closer to €3.6bn.

Perhaps least clear of all is what Mr Macron wants to get out of this. He seems to have various aims, none directly related to national defence: to build respect for the security forces, to bring people from different backgrounds together and to provide a nation-building experience.

Even so, the broader social aim may prove elusive. A recent parliamentary report was scathing about the usefulness of a month of compulsory service for such a purpose. It pointed out that teenagers who turn to crime, or become radicalised, often do so before the age of 18. Nor did it believe that such a project could bond the nation. The idea that “a few weeks of military instruction would be enough to develop among 18- to 21-year-olds a sense of national belonging”, it concluded, “is illusory”.