French Military Reforms and Strategy

By Tiersky, Ronald | Strategic Forum, November 1996 | Go to article overview

French Military Reforms and Strategy

Tiersky, Ronald, Strategic Forum


   French military downsizing and reconfiguring is part of a NATO-wide
   trend. All French forces, including the nuclear force de frappe, are
   affected. Three factors are shaping French and European post-Cold
   War militaries: 1) disappearance of the Soviet Union; 2) budgetary
   pressures, especially competition between security needs and
   European integration needs (meeting the Maastricht "Convergence
   Criteria"); and 3) new missions replacing the Cold War outlook.

   The military issue for France is whether the planned,
   professionalized, rapid-reaction forces will be adequate to
   post-Cold War missions, or whether downsizing and budget problems
   will result in a hollowed-out military. Success will depend on
   relaunching strong economic growth and on the Chirac government's
   determination to see through tensions between security and
   integration until the single European currency is launched and less
   constrained budgetary times return.

Maastricht Economics and Chirac's Military Reform

Jacques Chirac's succession of Socialist Francois Mitterrand as the president of France in May 1995 raised questions as to what balance of continuity and change there would be in French foreign and security policy, as well as in France's European integration policies. Similarities and differences between neo-Gaullist and Socialist policies sometimes are not what stereotypes would indicate.

On the one hand, Mitterrand's European security and European integration policies turned out, from the beginning, to be quite realistic-leading to much more continuity than many had expected. On the other hand, Gaullism has always been more an attitude than a policy; Chirac's neo-Gaullist policy, like de Gaulle's own, is a remarkably flexible pragmatism sitting atop a few basic principles, above all the pursuit of national interest.

Chirac, for example, has surprised stereotyped expectations that a neo-Gaullist would naturally back away from European integration. Having campaigned in 1995 on a "national" platform promising that unemployment would be his "priority of priorities," Chirac has instead maintained Mitterrand's hard choice of austerity and a "strong Franc," meaning belt-tightening domestic suffering in order to meet "convergence criteria" requirements for joining in the single European currency. A traditional "statist" and "national" policy of deficit-spending to create jobs would increase inflation, the budget deficit and the national debt, making French Single European Currency membership problematic. Not surprisingly, the popularity of Chirac and Prime Minister Alain Juppe's is very low, not least of all because of the French government's "Bundesbank policy."

These European integration factors are connected to Chirac's military reforms and his turn toward the NATO command in European security policy. Chirac's downsizing and reconfiguration of French military forces, and his turning toward the integrated command-long recommended by military leaders themselves, (who realized how much technology and training the French military missed by being outside)--was provoked by the need to finance Maastricht commitments. It was also a reaction to inadequate French military performance in the Gulf war and in Bosnia, where French technology, weaponry, interoperability and the conscription army's constraints all caused problems. Chirac has launched a wholesale recasting of French defense, military and security policies which Mitterrand had only begun. Examples of Mitterrand's intentions are the European agreements to build advanced satellite intelligence capabilities and a large European transport aircraft--both designed to reduce Europe's dependence on U.S. assets.

Mitterrand's Nuclear Moratorium and Chirac's Last Round of Tests

Just weeks after taking office, determined to relaunch French defense efforts, Chirac broke with Mitterrand's moratorium on nuclear testing. …

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