France's New Recipe

France's New Recipe

The celebration of France's national holiday each July 14 traditionally centers on a military review on the Champs-Élysées in Paris. The cadets from Saint-Cyr and the École Navale lead a long parade of infantry and motorized units past the presidential stand as the legendary flyers of the Patrouille de France soar overhead, leaving tricolor contrails. If Nicolas Sarkozy has his way, the troops filing past him will soon have to adapt to a substantially redefined strategy. This new direction will most directly impact the French military, setting its posture and procurement priorities for the next fifteen years. But by laying out the strategic orientation for the second-largest defense budget in the world, it will also affect France's NATO allies-and other countries as well-as they consider their responses to the twenty-first century's evolving geopolitical dynamics.

The product of unprecedented public as well as closed-door consultations, including hearings involving experts from fourteen countries and five continents, the just-published three-hundred-fifty page White Paper on Defense and National Security acknowledges two premises. First, globalization has changed the world: "The hierarchy of powers has changed and will continue to evolve. The world is not necessarily more dangerous, but it has become more unstable, more unforeseeable." Also, "jihadism-inspired terrorism" is a direct threat to France and Europe, both of which will "fall within the range of ballistic missiles developed by new powers"-and this was a month before Iran's missile tests. Second, in such a world, national security must be "appraised globally" to include not just defense policy, but also internal security policy, civil defense, foreign policy and economic policy.

In terms of geography, four areas are singled out as critical for the security of France and Europe: one is an "arc of crisis" stretching from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, characterized by a combination of instability, multiple sources of state and nonstate violence, the prospect of WMD proliferation and growing connections between crisis points. Another is sub-Saharan Africa, where problems of development are increasingly compounded by the challenges of state failure, the scramble for natural resources, urbanization and climate change. Third is Eastern Europe, with the direction of Russia's ongoing evolution still undetermined. And finally Asia, to which the global strategic center is shifting but where regional institutions to manage tensions have yet to emerge. Militarily, this would entail the reduction of French conventional forces deployed in Africa in favor of more flexible special-operations units, while simultaneously repositioning assets to more geostrategically vital theatres like the Persian Gulf, where earlier this year Sarkozy signed a deal to establish a base in Abu Dhabi.

While the document pays homage to the "European ambition" of a "more united, stronger European Union, confident in the security and defense sectors, especially in its responses to new risks and challenges," it also advocates the return of France to full participation in the Atlantic Alliance. But it insists on three conditions: the complete independence of French nuclear forces; that French authorities must retain "full freedom of assessment," especially in the intelligence sector; and "permanent freedom of decision."

The White Paper envisions an ambitious modernization program for both the military and intelligence services, as well as a new armed-forces configuration. The army would become leaner, with five thousand soldiers on permanent alert, capable of deploying thirty thousand troops in six months. The navy would add an aircraft-carrier group, eighteen Mistral-class frigates and six nuclear attack submarines. A joint air fleet would have three hundred combat planes, able to permanently deploy five squadrons in France and commit seventy aircraft abroad. France would also start a "crash program" to build a fleet of surveillance and armed drones, create a joint-services space command, and launch a new program to develop defensive and offensive cyber-warfare capabilities.

In order to manage the implementation of the new strategy, the Sarkozy administration borrowed heavily from les Anglo-Saxons. A Defense and National Security Council, modeled after the "principals' committee" of the U.S. National Security Council, will be created along with a subordinate National Intelligence Council and an Advisory Board for Defense and National Security. To train personnel for the transformed security structure, the White Paper envisions a joint intelligence academy and a joint training center focused on chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear threats, as well as a university-level institution for advanced research on defense and strategic issues.

The White Paper defines increasing freedom of action for France as the "core objective" of the military strategy. But how is that freedom to be exercised? The report outlines seven criteria which need to be satisfied before Paris sends its armed forces abroad:

1. the substantial and serious character of the threat to national security or international peace and security;

2. the consideration, prior to the use of armed force, of other possible measures, without prejudice to emergency situations involving legitimate defense or the responsibility to protect;

3. respect for the international rule of law;

4. the sovereign decision by French political authority, freedom of action, and the capability to evaluate the situation on an ongoing basis;

5. democratic legitimacy, which requires transparency with respect to the objectives pursued and the support of the national body political, especially as expressed by its parliamentary representatives;

6. France's ability to sustain an adequate level of commitment, national control over its forces and a political strategy aimed at a lasting solution to the crisis;

7. clear definition of the commitment in terms of space and time, with a precise estimate of costs.

The significance of these guidelines is that they represent a break with France's traditional interventionism in its former African colonies. By one count, between 1960 and the present, there have been about four dozen such military operations. Almost none of these past engagements would meet the new criteria. Yet the new restraint not only refocuses the Fifth Republic's military strength toward defending the patrie, but also preserves its capabilities for those occasions when the core interests of France and "her will to maintain her international rank and influence" will truly be at play. Overall it is a recipe which others would do well to copy.


J. Peter Pham is director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.