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Trimmed French military is no retreat

By Jonathan Marcus
Diplomatic correspondent, BBC News

French military parade on Champs Elysees on Bastille Day 14 July 2006
Improved European defence is close to the president's heart

There is no doubt that France's new defence policy bears the stamp of President Nicolas Sarkozy himself.

He is the most Atlanticist president to occupy the Elysee Palace since the inception of the Fifth Republic in the late 1950s.

If then President Gen Charles de Gaulle's decision to pull French troops out of Nato's integrated command structure in 1966 was a gesture of independence from Washington, then President Sarkozy's determination to bring them back into a reformed Nato is equally symbolic.

It may mean less in practical terms. French forces operate and train alongside their Nato colleagues as a matter of course and despite the rows with Washington over Iraq, France remains an important military player in Afghanistan.

'French exceptionalism'

Nonetheless the move back towards Nato's military structures in a way highlights the main theme of this French defence reform.

It signals an end to French exceptionalism. France is belatedly having to face up to the financial and strategic realities that other similar-sized military powers like Britain have already confronted.

Indeed the comparison with Britain has been made explicitly by the French Defence Minister Herve Morin himself.

Nicolas Sarkozy inspects British troops at Windsor Castle, England, on 26 March 2008
France has taken note of British military cuts

Writing in the newspaper Le Monde, Mr Morin notes the very limited role French forces played in the war to liberate Kuwait - hampered by their inability to operate alongside other Western forces, they were limited to a supporting role on the flank.

Much has been done since then to improve France's ability to take part in coalition operations, be they under the auspices of Nato or the European Union.

But more needs to be done.

France's armed forces still display many of the traits of a conscript force despite the move towards a career military; large numbers of barracks and a huge supporting infrastructure.

Cutbacks

Again Herve Morin makes the comparison with Britain.

Is it necessary, he asks, to have 60% of France's defence personnel involved in administration and supporting roles and only 40% in operational duties?

In Britain, he notes, the ratio is reversed.

Quite apart from the long-standing deficiencies of the French military set-up President Sarkozy's White Paper also represents a belated attempt to address some of the new strategic realities in the post 9/11 world.

Nicolas Sarkozy at Elysee Palace on 14 June 2008
Mr Sarkozy made it clear France still had great diplomatic ambitions

The French government has determined that much more needs to be spent on intelligence gathering.

The money going to space assets - satellites and so on - will be doubled.

There will be a new inter-service Space Command.

There will be more money too for homeland defence.

The new defence plan sets out a range of potential threats from ballistic missile attack and terrorism to natural catastrophes and pandemic disease.

However, the only way to find new money is to cut back elsewhere.

Over the coming six or seven years the army will be cut by some 17%; the Air Force by 24%; and the Navy by 11%.

Disruption and discontent

In the short-term there will be disruption and discontent.

The key problem will be to try to ensure that money saved goes into improving capabilities and not simply into managing the change.

More capable and deployable forces in France will enable some bases in Africa to close - a policy pre-figured in a major speech by President Sarkozy on Franco-African ties earlier this year.

Nicolas Sarkozy inspects a military parade
Moving back into Nato undoes decades of French semi-detachment

Overall this should not be seen simply as France drawing in its military horns. Far from it.

In presenting his plans President Sarkozy made it clear that France still had great diplomatic ambitions in the world and that he saw a significant military capability as an integral part of this.

Without the military capability there could not be the diplomatic weight.

France clearly retains ambitions to be a military player abroad but knows it must make better use of the money that it can afford.

Moving back into Nato's military command structure undoes decades of French semi-detachment from the Atlantic alliance.

But here too there should be no illusions.

Improving European defence capabilities is still very close to the president's heart.

France will remain a Nato player with a distinctive accent.


SEE ALSO
France sets out Afghan deployment
01 Apr 08 |  South Asia

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