Page last updated at 18:11 GMT, Tuesday, 17 June 2008 19:11 UK

French military towns fear for future

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC News, Paris

When French President Nicolas Sarkozy announces that 54,000 military and civil defence jobs are to be cut over the next seven years, it is not hard to imagine why many French people will not be happy.

French soldiers in Afghanistan - file picture
France may commit more to Nato missions such as that in Afghanistan

Around 450 towns in France have some sort of military presence but now 50 military bases, garrisons and other defence facilities are set to shut.

In the east of France at least six bases will close, prompting huge fears among residents of economic hardship.

People in the town of Luneville are particularly concerned - the local mayor has already visited the defence minister five times recently to protest against plans to move its military base, which employs more than 950 civilians and military personnel.

The loss of military salaries alone has been estimated at around 21m euros ($32.6m; 16.6m) a year, but if the military personnel disappear from the town, at least 30 local businesses are likely to be affected.

Focus on intelligence

So why the decision to make such sweeping and largely unpopular changes?

First of all, France's state coffers are very much in the red and strained public finances have forced it to cut costs and to seek more value for money across all departments from education to health.

54,000 jobs to be cut from 320,000-strong workforce
50 military bases and facilities to be closed
From 2009 to 2020, 377bn euros to be spent on defence

The military's turn for a spending review was bound to come, especially since there has not really been a significant overhaul of the defence policy for 14 years.

Secondly, it is clear that France is changing its defence strategy and priorities, focusing much more on interior security than on external security.

President Sarkozy warned that a terrorist attack was now the most immediate threat to France which was why the government had decided to make a "massive investment" increasing intelligence and investing in technology.

"The threat is there, it is real and we know that it can tomorrow take on a new form, even more serious, with nuclear, chemical and biological means," he warned.

The new state-of-the-art intelligence plans also include setting up a national security council at the Elysee Palace with a former ambassador to Iraq and Algeria, Bernard Bajolet, named in the newly created post of national intelligence co-ordinator.

Pro-Atlantic stance

President Sarkozy also made a break with the past by confirming his intention to bring France back under Nato's military command.

It left in 1966 when the then President, Gen Charles de Gaulle rejected the alliance for being dominated by the United States.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
President Nicolas Sarkozy said overall military spending will not change

The new move has angered opposition politicians in France who say it points towards the French leader's increasingly pro-Atlantic stance.

Many French people are angered by President Sarkozy's close relationship with George W Bush, dubbing their leader "Sarko the American".

The French president tried to deflect such criticism by insisting that rejoining the military command would not mean a loss of independence and that France would keep control of its own nuclear arsenal.

"We can renew our relations with Nato without fear for our independence," he promised, "and without running the risk of being unwillingly dragged into a war."

Overseas bases

The number of troops ready for combat will also be slashed.

More commitment to Nato and European defence missions may mean backing away from Africa.

Back in February, on a tour of South Africa, Mr Sarkozy announced that France would renegotiate all its defence agreements with African countries, suggesting that it had no reason to maintain armed forces on the continent indefinitely.

Making those kind of changes to UK military would not benefit the UK in the same manner it may for France
Beth, South Shields

Today, France still has some 9,000 troops deployed in Senegal, the Ivory Coast, Gabon, Djibouti and the Central African Republic, but some of those bases now look likely to close.

Meanwhile, France wants to improve its intelligence gathering in Asia and plans to open a permanent base in Abu Dhabi, its first in the Gulf.

Despite the considerable paring back of the French army, navy and air force, President Sarkozy has promised the level of defence spending will not go below the current 2% of national income.

The budget will simply be redirected into intelligence gathering, new equipment and helicopters.

Small comfort though for the people of towns like Luneville who know that when their resident regiment marches on, they will be taking much of the town's prosperity with them.

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