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French Military Strategy and NATO Reintegration

Author: Michael Moran
Updated: March 12, 2009
This publication is now archived.

Introduction

The French government's decision to rejoin the integrated military command structure of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) formalizes a decade-long rethink of French military strategy and foreign policy. Under President Charles de Gaulle, who perceived the alliance as dominated by the United States and Britain, France pulled its forces out of NATO in 1966 to pursue more independent policies. The 2009 reversal, championed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, has broad support in the French policymaking community and the military, though some dissent from traditional Gaullists persists. The full reintegration of French forces into NATO's structure reflects France's view of a changed world in which domestic security will rely on the ability to coordinate with allies abroad. The move also acknowledges a diminished French ability to mount significant expeditionary operations abroad without logistical and other support from its closest allies, including the United States. In effect, the era of "French exceptionalism" in conventional military affairs is over.

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Roots of the Policy Shift

The decision to rejoin NATO's military command structure is part of a larger shift following publication of a white paper on French defense and security policy in 2008. It reverses decades of French security policy, which has focused on a Cold War-style invasion scenario as the nation's primary challenge. Instead, the paper highlights counterterrorism and intelligence, reintegrates France with NATO for purposes of European security, and arguably draws Paris closer to Washington, in doctrinal terms, than any time since liberation.

Strategically, the changes echo moves that have been recommended (if not wholly undertaken) by U.S. and British defense policymakers since the end of the Cold War. Mobility--and in France's case, the ability to deploy and sustain up to thirty thousand troops in a far-off land--is a key goal.

"France's own strategic approach stresses that its forces must adapt further to the new dimensions of military operations overseas and to asymmetric warfare," writes France's former NATO Ambassador Benoît d'Aboville in the Guardian. "French forces will maintain a robust capacity for overseas military operations within the framework of Nato-led operations, but not exclusively so," he adds.

To achieve this, resources are shifting away from French formations and weapons systems designed for the Cold War environment of state-to-state warfare. This means slimming down armored units, artillery, and infantry divisions, along with some elements of the French navy and air force designed primarily for defense against conventional attack. The decision on whether to construct a second nuclear aircraft carrier, for instance, has been put off for five years, while the construction of more nuclear submarines continues.

The size of the uniformed component of the French army, now the largest in the European Union, is in line to drop by 24 percent over the next several years, a continuation of a trend which began at the end of the Cold War and picked up pace when France ended its national draft in 2001.

Since 1989, according to Defense Ministry figures, the army has decreased from nearly 500,000 to just about 250,000 today (including reserves), and will fall to 225,000 under the new plan. The combat-ready force will shrink to 88,000. This force will be organized into smaller, more rapidly deployable ground units--again, a reform the U.S. and British militaries already have made. New investments are planned in human espionage efforts, spy satellites, and homeland security efforts. The "slimming" of the current force will also alleviate readiness and reliability problems, which have become serious. An internal defense document described appalling maintenance problems across all services in 2008.

Foreign Policy Implications

The new French military posture, as outlined in the 2008 white paper, reinforces previous hints that France intends to reorient its geopolitical thinking to put Asia, rather than North Africa and the Levant, more squarely on its security agenda (World Politics Review). In line with public statements by Sarkozy and senior foreign policy officials, the doctrine puts greater emphasis on cooperation with the United States in countering Iran's growing influence, tracking nuclear proliferation, and expanding NATO's ability to act outside Europe, even as a separate EU defense capability matures. For instance, France announced in early 2008 its decision to add troops to NATO's Afghanistan mission. By early 2009, about three thousand French troops were deployed in and around Afghanistan. The new strategy also reflects the tempering of France's traditionally Arabist approach to the Middle East. Indeed, the same week the white paper was published, the European Union announced it had agreed to upgrade ties with Israel, a move long resisted by previous French governments.

Abroad, the French president has pledged to renegotiate colonial-era mutual defense agreements with many African states. As this Backgrounder discusses, some nine thousand French troops are deployed in Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, Djibouti, and the Central African Republic.

Yet Sarkozy has insisted the new doctrine represents a reorientation rather than a curbing of French ambition. The doctrine makes clear France's nuclear arsenal will be maintained and kept solely under French command. Sarkozy has shown no signs of abandoning France's African patch, either. When Sudanese rebels threatened to overthrow Chad's pro-Paris leader in 2008, France made it clear it was willing to intervene (Spiegel). Nor has Paris signaled an intention to give up on power projection. France operates Europe's only real fixed-wing aircraft carrier, the Charles De Gaulle, and even though a decision on a second has been postponed, talks with Britain continue on a proposed jointly built class of super carriers (PDF). Sarkozy in June 2008 told German officials he foresees eventual formation of a European naval strike force (Spiegel) with British and French carriers at its core, and Germany, Italy, Spain, and a host of other nations contributing frigates, submarines, and support vessels. Perhaps with Iran in mind, Sarkozy announced that France would build a new navy base in the United Arab Emirates, and it has also ratcheted up efforts to sell its weapons (NPR) in the region.

Francois Heisbourg, a member of the presidential commission that wrote the white paper and a former head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, said "we're planning for one war and a half." In Heisbourg's view, that means the ability to project up to sixty thousand troops, seventy combat aircraft, and a full naval group, as part of a multinational deployment anywhere in "the arc of crisis." The white paper defines that arc as ranging from the North Atlantic to the Indian Ocean. Heisbourg notes that the Indian Ocean has taken on new significance for France, and that the new base in Abu Dhabi, combined with existing facilities in Djibouti and Reunion, gives the French military a "string of pearls" with which to influence events in the region.

Opposition Gathers

The breadth of these changes, not to mention Sarkozy's personal style, has kicked up significant domestic opposition (he announced the reintegration with NATO in June 2008 alongside U.S. President George W. Bush, who was deeply unpopular in France). Senior French military commanders reacted with a scathing open letter bemoaning the force level cuts and the NATO decision. "France will from now on be playing in the same division as Italy," they wrote in the June 18 edition of the conservative daily Le Figaro. "There is no point in denying it."

France regards its status as a major military power with great pride, and suggestions that the new doctrine will relegate the country to second-tier status rankle well beyond military circles. Sarkozy's Socialist Party opponents kicked up a storm of protest, and across France, towns adjacent to the fifty military bases slated for closure expressed strong concern (BBC). For the French security establishment, the debate over closer ties to NATO, often seen as a proxy for an Anglo-American agenda, runs right up against decades of exceptionalist policies instituted by de Gaulle with the express purpose of preventing such intimacy. In common with other European countries diminished by the rise of the Cold War superpowers in the 1950s, France struggled to adjust to the realities of its new position, fighting bloody and unsuccessful rearguard actions to retain colonies in Southeast Asia and Algeria.

Still, Paris insisted on maintaining its place as one of three European military forces (the other two are Britain and Russia) that can operate independently on far-flung missions. Similarly, France resisted the post-Cold War trend toward downsizing and reorienting its forces, in part due to its insistence on "independence" from the United States. France continued to conscript soldiers, for instance, right through the 1990s, long after most major militaries went to an "all volunteer" system. The white paper concluded that the size and capabilities of the French military no longer reflected the likely missions it would undertake in the future. "There is no risk of an invasion today ... but on the other hand we need to be able deploy forces to participate in the stabilization of regions or zones in crisis," Sarkozy said.

Sarkozy has consistently disarmed his opponents by inviting some into his government and ignoring others. Most recently, he appointed former Socialist foreign minister Hubert Vedrine, who coined the term "hyperpower" to describe the United States in the late 1990s, to lead a commission on the proper role of France in a globalized world.

Comparing France and Britain

France, to date, had charted a very different course from Britain (BBC). While the British, too, have insisted on "punching above their weight," since 1956 at least, closeness with America has underpinned their geopolitical thinking--"a bond forged through the blood spilled together in the sands of Iraq and Afghanistan"--as Britain's senior military officer, Gen. Sir Richard Dannatt, put it in a June 2008 speech. Laying out his own country's future military vision (PDF), he declared "we must focus on operating with the United States, and not necessarily as the United States." The implied criticism of France's more independent stance would not have been lost on his audience.

In contrast, France defined its military role more independently, often summing up its posture with the ambiguous phrase "friend, ally, non-aligned." U.S.-France ties often appeared strained, as in the run-up to the Iraq war, though practical cooperation remained quite close. Still, France opted out of the Iraq war, and aside from a period just after 9/11 when French special forces operated in Afghanistan, largely avoided that conflict, too.

Has France now come around to the British view? "The French are realizing that not even they are able to go it alone, and [Sarkozy] is putting the French military back in the business of dealing with threats that really matter," Tomas Valasek of the Center for European Reform told Newsweek. Certainly, many French senior officers fear otherwise. "We are abandoning European military leadership to the British, when we know their particular relationship with the United States," they wrote in Le Figaro. As such, the first battle involving France's new defense doctrine looks likely to take place on French soil.

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