Magazine article The Spectator

French Generals Admire British Soldiers; French Politicans Are Uneasy

Magazine article The Spectator

French Generals Admire British Soldiers; French Politicans Are Uneasy

Article excerpt

The other day, I came across a fascinating piece of small print. A session of the French National Assembly's defence committee might seem unlikely to provide illumination or entertainment, for in recent decades there has been much more patriotic consensus about defence in France than in Britain and much less public debate. Equally, since Algeria, the French generals have been wary of making any statement which could be interpreted as a political intervention.

But not any longer. Le Monde found the ideal headline for this controversial meeting: `Les militaires franCais envient les Britanniques.' The two most senior French generals plus the airforce commander all made the same point: that in training, materiel and force projection, the British enjoy a significant lead. Le Monde described the armed forces' chief of staffs comments as 'a tribute from a military expert to the competence and seriousness of British soldiers acquired and maintained by sheer effort on the exercise ground'. The paper concluded that, as a result of their comments, the generals `have pushed French political leaders up against a wall'. The generals must be relieved that Devil's Island has been decommissioned.

The French generals were, of course, inviting the politicians to draw a simple conclusion: that they need more money. But they have found a powerful way of pressing home that perennial complaint, touching on French politicians' anxieties about the leadership of Europe.

A wise civil servant once said that politics was the pleasure principle, administration the reality principle. But in modem French defence policy that distinction has been abolished. The whole exercise has been about psychological gratification, at the Americans' expense. Able to enjoy Nato's protection while evading its constraints, the French have felt free to indulge themselves. After Suez, we British drew two conclusions: that we were no longer a superpower, and that we must never again find ourselves on the opposite side from the Americans. That was a grown-up response, but the French retreated into geopolitical fantasies. With the force de frappe, francophonie and independent diplomacy, the French official class set out to resist American hegemony.

That was hard enough when there were two superpowers; once there was only one hyperpower, it became absurd. But far from abandoning their ambitions, the French are now trying to graft them on to Europe. The EU has a larger population and GDP than the US, so it too could become a superpower - under French leadership, naturally.

From the outset, the French have seen the European defence identity as a means of hollowing out Nato and displacing the Americans. But there is a problem. What defence identity? It is easy for politicians to make grandiose speeches. The difficulties start when the generals are called in. `Bien sur, Ministre,' they will reply when invited to create a European defence policy, `but it will cost you.' Worse still, les rosbifs have got there already.

Rapid reaction is the essence of modern warfare. But as one general told the defence committee, the planned European corps could not act as a rapid-reaction force; it would neither have the resources nor the command structure. There was one force in Europe that did have rapid-reaction capability, said the general: Nato's ARRC (Allied Rapid Reaction Corps). This has crucial British components and is usually under British command (currently General Sir Christopher Drewry, one of the army's coming men).

The French politicians claim that they would like Britain to be part of Europe's defence identity. …

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