Last week, President Sarkozy said in a CBS television interview that France would never give up its nuclear weapons unilaterally because they continue to ‘underpin’ France’s security in a ‘dangerous’ world. He argued that his nation of 65 million inhabitants’ has ‘fewer conventional weapons than the US, than Russia, than China’. Although Sarkozy was keen to mention the fact that France has renounced nuclear testing and reduced its nuclear arsenal by one third, he added that he would be ‘jeopardizing’ the security of his country if any further reductions were made. Since his comments were picked up by a large number of news organizations, one might have initially thought there was something unique about Sarkozy’s position, but to the few French nuclear watchers out there, all of this no doubt sounded like old news…
From Sarkozy’s comments it is evident that French thinking remains wedded to the idea that nuclear weapons make a nation ‘free and independent’. It’s an idea that has long driven France’s nuclear weapons program, visible in statements by leaders such as Charles De Gaulle, Lionel Jospin, and Jacques Chirac. France’s defeat at the hands of Nazi Germany in World War II, their subsequent inability to overcome Viet Minh forces at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu (thus ending French-Indochina, a.k.a.Vietnam), and the Sueze Canal crisis and subsequent rift with the U.S., all undoubtedly sowed the seeds of France’s appetite to develop an independent ‘life-insurance policy’ to guarantee its vital interests at home and abroad. But since then, with the era of decolonization, the creation of the European Union, and France’s reentry into NATO, the rationale for the French nuclear deterrent has essentially evaporated.
France relied on a triad of air, land and sea based nuclear weapons for its deterrence until 1996, when President Chirac announced the retirement of France’s land based missile facilities. At the same time, France contradicted this positive step towards disarmament by conducting a series of nuclear tests at the Mururoa Atoll and injecting significant resources into modernizing its nuclear weapons.
Similarly, when Sarkozy stated in April 2008 that France would reduce its nuclear arsenal to 300 warheads, it coincided with the inauguration of the first of France’s new ‘Triumphant’ class nuclear submarines and efforts to perfect the new M51 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile. And despite that reduction, France still remains the third largest nuclear power – surpassing even China, a country with a population some 21 times bigger. Which raises the question: how does France’s large and modern nuclear arsenal contribute to its ‘independence’?
France’s recent White Paper on Defense and National Security states that the ‘sole purpose’ of nuclear weapons is to ‘prevent [likely meaning deter] any State-originating aggression against the vital interests of the nation’ (although there are some questions regarding the accuracy of this official translation). In this context, the section on ‘new security parameters’ implies that French nuclear weapons might potentially have a role in responding to future threats such as the ‘the emergence of new weapons’, ‘cyber warfare’, ‘the offensive use of outerspace’, and even “black swan” events. Given the absence of such threats today, France seems to reason that since it already has nuclear weapons, it might as well keep them as a hedge against future uncertainty.
Looking back, nuclear weapons have so far been useless for France – both in defending vital interests and enabling it to engage in overseas conflicts. Several low level interventions in Africa, a few contributions to multinational forces in international conflicts, and a stabilization force sent to Haiti – that’s pretty much it for French military intervention over the past fifty years.
Recently Sarkozy pointed to Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs to suggest that ‘the future of Europe is at stake’, but it is hard to understand why this actually might be the case. Indeed, to think that Iran would ever be developing these programs with Europe primarily in mind seems an absurd and egotistical notion. Beyond being a key trading partner for Iran, Europe also has vast conventional superiority, is increasingly interconnected (and thus less practical to target), and contains many countries that profit from NATO’s alliance structure. In fact, as long as France remains a member of a nuclear armed NATO, then there seems literally no justification for Paris to possess its own independent nuclear deterrent.
Of all the countries today with nuclear weapons, France is arguably facing the fewest threats, and as a result of increased European integration, exists in one of the most stable regions of the world. In this context, if France still thinks it needs its nuclear weapons to keep it ‘free and independent’, then it’s very hard to imagine any circumstances under which it will ever feel comfortable without them. Realistically, beyond using nuclear weapons to clutch on to an increasingly fading notion of ‘great power’ status, it seems that France has as much justification to own nuclear weapons as its neighbor Switzerland would have.