Nation's Armed Forces Suffer Political Neglect

Article excerpt

Byline: Andrew Borowiec, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

PARIS - As the campaign for the French presidency unfolds, voters are getting a different picture of their armed forces than that glittering annual parade every July 14 on Bastille Day.

Both leading candidates - President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin - are being attacked for "the great misery of our army." As president, Mr. Chirac is commander in chief, but funding the military is the domain of Mr. Jospin's Cabinet.

"Does France really have means commensurate with its ambitions?" questioned the conservative daily Le Figaro.

Critics among the presidential candidates point out that during the past 10 years, France's defense budget has dropped from 3 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) to 1.8 percent. While the army, navy and air force ask for an additional $460 million this year, the government intends to cut defense spending by $350 million.

Jacques Baumel, vice president of the Defense Committee in the National Assembly, drew a grim picture of the armed forces:

"An aircraft carrier suffering too many breakdowns, construction of a second one essential to our security postponed, aging helicopters, cruise missiles expected [to be available] only in eight years, and a constant decrease in the budget."

Pierre Lelouche, another member of the Defense Committee, charged that the government, "not satisfied with perpetrating its mistakes, is closing its eyes to the lessons of September 11."

Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a Socialist former defense minister and now a presidential candidate, said that Mr. Chirac's decision to turn the armed force into an all-volunteer professional force "neglected the defense of national territory and the protection of the civilian population, and concentrates mainly on foreign [military] operations. …