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Future of nuclear France

No country without an atom bomb could properly consider itself independent

– Charles de Gaulle

While originally France considered possession of nuclear weapons as a means to achieve ‘great power status’ and pursue an independent foreign policy, the maintenance of nuclear capability has now become an essential element of its security policies.

In 2006, the then French president Chirac described nuclear deterrence as the very foundation of French defence policy. Many French presidents have repeatedly emphasised the point that full responsibility for the security of the French nation must rest in French hands and that they cannot leave their destiny to the discretion of other powers.

Over the past few years, French leaders have put forth two rationales for the acquisition and retention of nuclear weapons capability. The primary purpose has been to tackle new major threats that may emerge in the years to come due to the uncertain nature of competition between various poles of power.

Secondly, nuclear deterrence is also considered to be a safer choice than a missile defence system because, in the presence of nuclear weapons, no other regional power could blackmail France with nuclear assault. This fear has dominated strategic thinking in France since the early 1950s when the threat of the Soviet Union launching a nuclear attack on Europe helped define a whole generation of nuclear advocates in the country. In the French media, this policy has been widely termed ‘counter blackmail’ or ‘counter deterrence’.

France began nuclear research and development activities in 1945, going back to the works of Marie Curie. According to some accounts, Bertrand Goldschmidt, the father of the French bomb, had worked as Curie’s last assistant. The official decision to go ahead with building a nuclear bomb was taken by then prime minister Pierre Mendes after his unsuccessful attempt to persuade the US and the Soviet Union to desist from atmospheric nuclear testing in 1954.

The decision to go nuclear initially met fierce resistance from the socialist parties but eventually a consensus emerged in favour of an independent nuclear programme. Six years later, in 1960, France conducted its first nuclear test, code-named ‘Gerboise Bleue’ (Blue Desert Rat) in Algeria. The plutonium fission device with an explosive yield of 70 kilotons was four times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb. By the early 1990s, France had conducted a total of 210 underground and atmospheric nuclear tests, first in Algeria and, after 1962, in the Tuamotu Archipelago in the South Pacific.

In 1992, president Mitterrand declared a moratorium on nuclear testing but his successor, president Chirac, broke the moratorium in 1996 for a final series of nuclear tests in French Polynesia. After conducting six underground nuclear test explosions, the French president announced joining the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and also ratified it immediately.

After the end of the cold war, the French government introduced some major changes to its nuclear posture and significantly reduced its nuclear forces. Francois Mitterrand’s socialist government closed all weapons-related fissile material production facilities in the country. After 2003, the number of nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) has been reduced from five to four. France claims to maintain its nuclear arsenal at a level equivalent to a minimum deterrent and has chosen not to indulge in a nuclear arms race, equipping itself with the most advanced but highly expensive nuclear weapons systems.

Currently, France deploys the world’s fourth largest nuclear arsenal, after those of the US, Russia and China. In 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France would reduce its nuclear weapons stockpile to less than 300 warheads. The nuclear weapons are part of the national nuclear Force de frappe, developed in the 1960s to have the ability to distance France from Nato, while having a means of nuclear deterrence under sovereign control.

Since the de Gaulle era, French nuclear policymaking has been very centralised and ‘monarchic’. Nuclear policymaking is the responsibility of a group of less than 20 people. A handful of political authorities and military officials are part of the Defence Council and Secretariat General for National Defence and Security (SGDSN), which are the two key bodies for nuclear policymaking.

The defence ministry is ‘responsible for the organisation, the management and the conditioning of nuclear forces and their necessary infrastructure’, but it is not included in the chain of command. Since the early 1980s, a civilian officer heads the SGDSN and military commanders have lost their influence due to the consolidation of all French weapons under a single category of strategic weapons. De Gaulle had set up the ‘military programme laws’ so that budget continuity for the French nuclear programme could be assured. This step left even parliament with little influence over nuclear affairs.

In the post-9/11 period, two issues have dominated the French nuclear policy debate. One is about the nature and scope of the ‘European dimension’ of deterrence. Over the past few years, many politicians and commentators are raising the idea of ‘Europeanising’ the French nuclear deterrent. This idea is premised on the view that in the making of nuclear decisions, the French government should take into account the collective interests of EU members.

The second issue pertains to the fate of air-launched weapons, which is considered by most critics as being much less important than the submarine-launched missile force. This aspect is relevant to answer questions over whether such capability is critical to the credibility of the French deterrent because France has already eliminated its land-based missiles in 1996.

Some analysts argue that because the UK relies only on a sea-based force, France can also do the same. Most of the criticism on the air-launched weapons capability revolves around the need to save money and take steps towards the ultimate goal of disarmament and non-proliferation. How the French authorities take final decisions about these two critical questions will determine the strength and scope of French nuclear deterrence in the years to come.

Email: rizwanasghar5@unm.edu

Rizwan Asghar, "Future of nuclear France," The News. 2015-03-13.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political process , Political system , Political decisions , Nuclear weapons , Nuclear technology , Security policies , Strategic doctrine , France-Nuclear technology , France