France Isn't Aiming for Nuclear Zero

Despite broad cuts elsewhere, a new French defense white paper affirms the role of a modernized deterrent force.

The French government finally unveiled its long-awaited livre blanc on defense and national security last week. As expected, the white paper contains grim news for the French military, capping spending at current levels and calling for substantial personnel reductions over the next five years. But one aspect of the French defense posture emerged virtually unscathed. Despite earlier reports about possible cuts in order to save money, the white paper reaffirms long-standing policies on the fundamental purpose and composition of French nuclear forces. While many officials and observers in the West discount the role of nuclear weapons in national security strategy now that the Cold War is over, the French government clearly takes a different view.

It’s been nearly a year since Francois Hollande assumed the French presidency with promises of change in both substance and style from that of his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy. Two months after assuming office, Hollande personally commissioned the writing of a new defense white paper to account for changes in the strategic and economic landscape that had occurred since the previous report was published in 2008. He also wanted no doubt to put his own stamp on defense spending, which commands nearly ten percent of the national budget.

The new white paper was originally due to hit the streets earlier this year. The context for the entire exercise, however, kept shifting. Across the Atlantic, U.S. officials continued to tout the so-called “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region in response to a rising China and a recalcitrant North Korea. Following Pyongyang’s third nuclear test in February, Washington took steps to ratchet up U.S. military presence in the region even further. The new American strategic priority left the European NATO allies, including France, to ponder anew the task of providing for their collective self-defense. That of course has not precluded many NATO countries from continuing to reduce defense expenditures in the face of mounting budget pressures.

As the United States was turning its focus toward the east, France was at the same time demonstrating its continued willingness to use military force in support of its foreign policy objectives. A year earlier, it had fired the opening shots of the military intervention in Libya that ultimately toppled Muammar Gaddafi. In January 2013, France launched Operation Serval in its former African colony of Mali to counter the threat posed by Islamic rebels to the central government in Bamako. With nearly 4,000 soldiers still on the ground, the French could be involved in this endeavor for some time to come, even as more responsibility is transferred to a United Nations peacekeeping force this summer.

Observers have noted that these recent and unexpected developments moderated the temptation to dramatically cut French defense spending in order to meet the government’s goal of reducing the deficit to 3 percent of gross domestic product. The projected reductions are nevertheless substantial. According to press reports, the military is set to lose as many as twenty-four thousand more employees between 2016 and 2019, on top of cuts initially set in motion by the previous president. The new white paper also confirms that France will not acquire a second aircraft carrier to complement the existing Charles de Gaulle. On the other hand, greater emphasis will be accorded to intelligence and cyber-security.

Despite the desire to find savings in the defense budget, French nuclear forces were left untouched. In a sense, this result was pre-determined. In his initial instructions to the white-paper commission, Hollande confirmed that he intended for France to maintain a strategic nuclear deterrent. The only question was how best to coordinate with other aspects of French defense and national-security policy.

The new white paper closely adheres to traditional French thinking on nuclear matters—views shared in the past by conservative and socialist governments alike. It asserts that nuclear forces are “the ultimate guarantee of our sovereignty.” Along with protection and intervention, dissuasion is identified as one of the three priorities of French defense strategy. Its purpose is to protect against all aggression by other states against French vital interests, wherever it comes from and in whatever the form. The white paper adds almost parenthetically that French nuclear forces also contribute to the security of the Atlantic alliance and Europe.