France: To Be or Not to Be a Nuclear Weapons State?

“As long as lions don’t have their historians, hunting stories will always glorify the hunters.” — African proverb

By Ben Cramer | 2013-04-01 12:00:00

How can France belong to the “happy few” who carry moral weight in the international arena, while owning 300 out of the world’s 19,500 nuclear warheads? Do these weapons enhance or reduce the credibility of the country’s activist foreign policy?

The current political background—intervention in Mali’s ongoing war against Islamists—highlights the fact that some nuclear weapons states live beyond their nuclear means. If France is out of its military depth, it is feeling it now for the first time.

Previous glory, present burdens

Since 1953—initially with the support of socialists, who turned against the bomb after De Gaulle came to power in 1958—the French state has been committed to the nuclear path. Successive governments justified it as “weak-to-strong deterrence” (dissuasion de faible au fort). Such people as Pierre Marie Gallois, a former colonel inspired by US generals while he was working for SHAPE, defended the bomb as an equalizing force (“le pouvoir égalisateur de l’atome”).

For belonging to the “happy few” privileged by historical accident, France paid a high price and now has to come to terms with its nuclear ambitions. Although France is the only country among the nuclear weapons states to have closed down its nuclear test sites after signing and ratifying the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), it waited until 2006 to recognize officially the health consequences of those tests, which affected both the indigenous population in French Polynesia and the French military and civilian personnel who worked on the tests.

In February 2011, the Minister of Defence acknowledged that fissures in the Moruroa atoll were likely to trigger a tsunami, a direct consequence of the 3,200 tons of radioactive waste that were dumped over the years off the coast of Moruroa and Hao. This was bad news for the French elite who argued that military activities had no impact on the environment. France is one of just two nuclear weapons states (Israel is the other) not to have signed or ratified the 1977 ENMOD Convention, which prohibits the hostile use of environmental modification or geoengineering.

Since the early 1950s, when France’s nuclear adventure began, the world has changed. At that time, France proposed at the UN a percentage reduction in arms spending by the developed countries, with the savings allocated to an international fund, in accordance with article 26 of the UN Charter. This philosophy has disappeared. However, the UN still refers to the 1987 action program on the relationship between disarmament and development. (The United States has opposed this program, which was the fruit of a 1983 initiative by then-President François Mitterrand.)

Disarmament and development rhetoric

Over the years, France aligned with the UK and the US to block UN resolutions linking disarmament and development. Though France in 2012 had initiated such a resolution, it explained:

The notion of a “symbiotic relationship” between disarmament and development appears questionable to us as the conditions conducive to disarmament are not necessarily dependent on development only, as seen with the growing military expenditure of the fastest developing countries. There is no automatic link between the two but rather a complex relationship that this motion does not accurately capture.

In August 2001 Laurent Fabius, then the minister of finance (now of foreign affairs), took up the notion of taxing the arms trade. More radical circles suggested a global “death tax” on leading arms companies with profits exceeding $1 billion, but these ideas have been dropped.

Proliferation vs. disarmament

France has a special record concerning horizontal proliferation. It was the last of the five official nuclear weapons states (even after China) to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, but, under US pressure after the 1991 Gulf War, Paris embraced non-proliferation with the enthusiasm of a new convert. This has been widely publicized.

The issue was largely sidelined by the National Assembly; its only official report on weapons of mass destruction amounted to three pages (out of 500) on Israel’s nuclear program,1 though France did join the rest of the West to condemn India and Pakistan’s entrance into the nuclear club. Moreover, it has tended to use the scapegoat of so-called “proliferators” (like Iran) in order to freeze its own disarmament program. As a result, France appears to have less leverage with Iran than do emerging powers such as Brazil or Turkey.

This non-proliferation stance is nevertheless quite ambiguous: in order to pursue its nuclear programs cost effectively, Paris has contributed, through unofficial links with the private sector, to Japanese nuclear ambitions. Paris advocates concerted “shared deterrence.” This concept, officially introduced by former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, was already invoked in 1957 when France’s socialist government tried to convince West Germany to contribute financially to Pierrelatte installations, including the Tricastin nuclear power plant. The latter served mainly French military ends but also provided enriched uranium to Italy for a submarine propulsion reactor.

Independence versus NATO

France tried to capitalize on the bomb by becoming more independent at a time when the world was divided into two blocs. Now that the world witnesses new emerging powers, capable of challenging the strategic hegemony of the Western world, one wonders if French politicians, previously so concerned about preserving France’s autonomy, are missing this reality. In 2009 France was reintegrated into NATO’s military command, reversing De Gaulle’s 1966 decision to withdraw. France is now the third-largest contributor to the NATO’s common operating budget, and it seems now nearly impossible to reverse the trend. Bad timing indeed. Having tried to bury any autonomous European defence policy, NATO has drifted toward the global South—from the Sahara to Kabul—far from the geographic boundaries of the North Atlantic.

Instead of supporting European allies such as Germany in calling for NATO member states to close their nuclear bases in Europe, France resists any denuclearization of the continent. The country’s newly elected socialist leaders seem prepared, even proud, to play by US rules and crusade against terrorism—a central argument in defence of the Mali adventure.

The financial issue

Those who swore by the force de frappe have been claiming that nuclear deterrence, far from being a weapon, would help prevent war, reinforce security, and increase France’s diplomatic clout. Yet the track record of nuclear weapons states in general, and France in particular, shows that states that are pursuing nuclear ambitions give up neither their conventional weaponry nor the prospect of fighting conventional wars and low-intensity conflicts.

Forty years ago, France devoted 50 percent of its military budget to nuclear forces, but this vastly expensive arsenal did nothing to decrease France’s addiction to foreign intervention. According to an official study by the French Ministry of Defence, France has intervened militarily in 28 countries since 1963 and is still present in many of them.

Does France have the financial means to play both the intervention card and the nuclear card? Henry Kissinger raised this question most provocatively. According to General Valentin, Kissinger once told him: “You will not manage to have an operational atomic weapon, you will not have the money to do it and technically you are not capable of doing it.” Today, pro-NATO voices are saying that Europe’s shrinking military budgets are related to two nuclear deterrent “vanity projects”—of the U.K. and France

However, while France’s military budget was comparable to China’s and Russia’s in the mid 1990s, that is not so anymore. Today, France’s military budget is one-fourth of China’s and one-half of Russia’s. So, tough choices will have to be made. To its credit, France is one of just three nuclear states that actually provide figures for their nuclear expenditures (even if the amounts are debatable), so informed public participation in this debate is possible.

The current financial crisis could lead to a mobilization of the people against military spending. Can France afford to spend one-third of its military budget on nuclear deterrence? It is the only nuclear weapons state to deploy land-based nuclear systems and then decide to give them up. Can it go any further?

Some French officials like Hervé Morin favor the “global zero” option, while General Bernard Norlain considers scrapping the air component a must, and urges abandoning the missiles on Mirage and Rafale fighter aircraft.

But these savings—amounting to $2.6 billion over the next 15 years—are peanuts in comparison with the $29 billion earmarked for new generation nuclear-armed submarines and their missiles. There could be proposals to reduce the number of nuclear-armed and powered submarines from four to three, but some experts predict that this would jeopardize French overall nuclear doctrine. It would no longer be possible to guarantee that at least one nuclear vessel would be at sea on any given day.

Ben Cramer is the author of “Nuclear weapons at what cost?” (IPB, 2009) and the forthcoming book Expensive Self-destruction.


1 P. Lellouche, G-M. Chauveau and A. Warhouver, Rapport d’information sur la prolifération des armes de destruction massive, Assemblée Nationale, Commission de la défense nationale et des forces armées, No. 2788, (2000), Paris.

Peace Magazine Apr-Jun 2013

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