October 11, 2007

Rethinking French defense

President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised a radical overhaul of foreign and defense policy, and budgetary realities and a new national debate over France's place in the world will influence the planned 'rupture' with the past.

By Lawrence J Speer in Paris for ISN Security Watch (11/10/07)

Defense issues are expected to slip beneath the radar next week when France's Parliament begins debate on the 2008 budget bill, the first of the Sarkozy era.

While President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised a radical overhaul of defense policy, the new president's first budget actually strikes a consensual tone on military spending, which will remain stable next year, at €36.7 billion (US$52.2 billion).

In another nod to continuity, the budget bill also makes good on nearly €16 billion in planned equipment purchases approved by former president Jacques Chirac, which will allow the French armed forces to acquire a range of new attack helicopters, fighter jets, submarines, naval frigates and armored fighting vehicles included in France's last five-year military spending planning law, which expires in 2008.

Experts here say Sarkozy will only begin putting his own imprint on defense spending at the end of the year, when Parliament is slated to begin discussing a new five-year military spending planning law for the 2008-13 period.

"It is now known that the government will need to find another €5 billion annually, just to fund the programs that have already been approved, and begin the first studies for the programs of the future," Jean-Pierre Maulny, assistant director of the Institute for International Strategic Relations (IRIS), said in an opinion piece in the French business daily Les Echos.

Barring an unexpected economic boom, it is unlikely that France will be able to meet this level of military investment while simultaneously keeping public finances within limits for members of the single European currency zone, Maulny said. "That being the case, there will certainly be some choices to be made."

Prime Minister Francois Fillon has promised that any hardware or spending choices laid out in the future military planning law would be closely tied to a new bid to adapt long-standing foreign policy and national security dogma to 21st century realities.

New White Paper on defense
The rethink was launched in late-August, when the government created a high-level commission charged with drafting a White Paper on Defense and National Security, to replace the previous consensus on the issue, which dates to 1994.

Sarkozy has asked the 30-member commission, led by top civil servant and defense expert Jean-Claude Mallet, to take a no-holds-barred look at French defense policy, strategies, hardware needs and operational capacities, as well as all other linked national security concerns, with an eye toward a "profound renovation."

While Sarkozy told the White Paper commission there would be "no taboos" during their deliberations, he did establish several areas where reform is unlikely. France will maintain an independent nuclear deterrent, continue expanding pan-European military cooperation and must meet commitments to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense, he said.

While these issues are non-negotiable, everything else is on the table. The White Paper commission is expected to weigh in on whether France should maintain its numerous overseas military bases, notably in Africa; whether foreign operations such as those in Afghanistan, Kosovo or Lebanon are essential to French national interest; and whether costly military spending programs such as plans for a new aircraft carrier should go forward.

A report issued last July by the French Senate suggested that France's high spending on troops in the field in recent years had slowed the pace of military investment, both for existing programs, like fighter jets, airborne missiles and attack helicopters, as well as for new or planned programs, including submarines, naval vessels and a range of land combat equipment.

The Senate report said France was currently far from meeting Sarkozy's "2 percent of GDP" pledge, and questioned where the funds would come from, as well as what they would eventually be spent on.

The Senate report was particularly skeptical about French plans to build a new aircraft carrier to back up the nuclear-powered Charles de Gaulle, currently in dry-dock in the Mediterranean city of Toulon. The multi-billion euro carrier project - a joint venture with the United Kingdom, which plans to build two new carriers of its own - will require a minimum investment of €500 million annually over the coming five years, and could crowd out other programs, according to the report.

The 2008 budget bill contains up to €3 billion in discretionary equipment spending, which government officials have said could cover anticipated planning costs over the coming years for the aircraft carrier project. A final decision on whether to go forward with the aircraft carrier project will only come after the White Paper is released next year, according to French Defense Minister Herve Morin.

Morin has repeatedly sought to reassure the military and defense contractors that a "bread and water diet" was not in their future. He played down 6,000 military and civilian job losses in the 2008 budget, preferring instead to talk up the stability in both operational and investment spending.

At the same time, Morin has publicly stated that the White Paper exercise should help the military think creatively about better ways of spending its budget. Bases will be cut, the number of non-combat personnel reduced and tasks currently carried out by the military - such as maintenance or training - will likely be farmed out to private sector firms, Morin has been quoted as saying.

Pan-European cooperation such as a shared use of the new A400M transport aircraft, being acquired by various EU members should also be considered, Morin said.

Jean-Claude Mallet, who heads the White Paper commission, told participants in an early-September defense symposium in the southwestern city of Toulouse that the White Paper would not be judged in the future for its recommendations on deterrence or regional alliances, but rather if it managed to bring about "coherence between our strategy, our capabilities, our objectives, our means and our financing."

Reintegration to NATO, closer ties with Washington
The White Paper Commission has also been asked to consider potential modifications to defense policy if Sarkozy follows through on plans to bring France fully into the integrated command structure of the NATO alliance.

Sarkozy floated a trial balloon on NATO in late-August, when he told a high-profile gathering of the French ambassadorial corps that the time had come for a "renovation of NATO" as well as a re-evaluation of France's place in the alliance. Backing away from former president Charles de Gaulle's 1966 decision to pull Paris out of the alliance's integrated military structure, Sarkozy told the ambassadors that France should play "a full role" in NATO.

Discussions are underway in Paris, Washington and NATO's Brussels-based headquarters on France's conditions for a return to full NATO membership, which could be in the cards during 2008.

EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana told the White Paper commission on 4 October that a French rapprochement with NATO would not threaten efforts to boost pan-European defense.

Solana, a Spanish politician who served as NATO secretary-general from 1995 to 1999, has first-hand knowledge of how France's "one foot in, one foot out" approach can slow decision-making in Brussels, which is probably why he told the commission that further French integration would be a "win-win" solution for European defense.

Sarkozy's decision to cease more than 40 years of Gallic resistance to American supremacy in Europe is seen here as part of wider efforts to bring about a general warming in Franco-American relations, particularly in the Middle East.

Sarkozy has broken with former president Chirac, whose opposition to the war in Iraq has clouded Franco-American relations, declaring his willingness to help the Bush administration achieve a political solution to the conflict. Sarkozy dispatched Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner to Baghdad in September, marking the first high-level French visit in nearly a decade, and has subsequently supported Washington's efforts to push Iraq's warring factions toward compromise.

Sarkozy has also backed away from France's traditionally pro-Palestinian leanings, expressing profound support for Israel that could have been drafted in Washington and warning against the menace posed by Hamas' militant Islamic rule in the Gaza Strip.

The French president has also moved toward the Bush administration on Iran, whose unwillingness to cooperate with the international community's non-nuclear proliferation objectives he describes as the principal threat to world security today.

While Sarkozy has offered Tehran the chance to cooperate with the international community to resolve the proliferation crisis, he has also warned that western countries may soon be forced to make a "catastrophic" choice, between "the Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran," and has become the leading proponent of sanctions, at the European or United Nations level.



Lawrence J Speer is a Paris-based freelance journalist who has reported on French economic and foreign policy, as well as European affairs, since 1995.

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