PARIS Presidential favourite Emmanuel Macron said on Saturday he wanted to restore military service to France for some 600,000 young people each year as part of efforts to face a world entering an era of "turbulence" comparable to the Cold War.
The 39-year-old former investment banker, running as an independent centrist, is seen winning the April/May election in a runoff with far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who herself has promised to bring back conscription 16 years after it ended.
Ahead of the first face-to-face televised debates with his rivals for the Elysee palace next week, Macron's speech to the military, defence and foreign policy community, sought to allay criticism from his opponents that he would be too inexperienced for the top job.
He vowed to strengthen France's overseas operations against Islamist militants in the Middle East and Africa, face Russia's "military affirmation", the United States' "unpredictability" and the "militarisation of terrorism" that was leading to acts of war on home soil.
"The current period is a turning point comparable to the Cold War, but this time we are entering an era of extreme turbulence, a new era of conflicts," Macron said.
Outlining the need for Europe to reaffirm itself in the face of major powers like Russia, China and the U.S., Macron insisted that he would "serve France's interests firsts" to ensure it kept its strategic autonomy and was able to act alone at any moment if needed.
The former economy minister under outgoing Socialist President Francois Hollande was accompanied on Saturday by officials from current Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, who has been advising his ex-cabinet colleague.
He is one of the few ministers in the existing government that has won plaudits and is expected to officially back Macron next week.
The country is in the throes of a highly charged election campaign after two years of attacks on civilians and public targets by Islamic State militants - several of them in Paris - that have killed more than 230 people and forced the government to put 10,000 soldiers on the streets to reinforce security. France has been under a state of national emergency since November 2015.
The threat was again highlighted on Saturday after security forces shot dead a man who tried to seize a soldier's gun at Paris Orly airport after he had earlier shot and wounded a police officer during a routine police check. [ID:nL5N1GV074]
"The strategic situation that I have described and the threats that weigh on our country forces us to reinforce the link between the army and the nation," Macron said.
"I therefore want every young French citizen to experience, even if only for short time military life - a short, obligatory and universal national service," Macron said.
He said the conscription would involve about 600,000 young men and women each year and occur for a one-month period between the ages of 18 to 21. The army and national gendarmerie would oversee the service.
"This is a major Republican project for society that must enable our democracy to be more united, but also resilient," he said.
(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Stephen Powell)