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France – enfant terrible in nuclear disarmament

October 22, 2009

Will France at least discuss nuclear disarmament?

France has a reputation of being  the country where the question of nuclear disarmament is taboo. Any aspect of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy is the prerogative of the President who does not condescend to discuss these exalted questions with the parliament or – God forbid! – journalists or common citizens. French diplomats taking part in international negotiations insist that as long as there is a bow and an arrow in the world, France needs its nuclear weapons. The reason for the French intransigence may be that the raison d’etre of the French nuclear force is so weak.

To keep Germany down and the USA in.

When the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France  in 1954 decided that France should develop nuclear weapons, his decision was based on his wartime experience: he feared German rearmament. As NATO grew stronger it became clear that the organization was going to be successful in two of its three goals: To keep Russia out and Germany down. However, France distrusted the USA and was uncertain if the third goal of NATO, to keep USA in Europe, could be secured. NATO was not sufficient. France developed its nuclear strategy with the goal to force the USA to defend Europe. To this end, the French nuclear armed missiles were directed towards Soviet cities, not against that country’s nuclear installations. If the Soviet Union threatened, or invaded,  Western Europe, French nuclear weapons would destroy Leningrad, Moscow , Minsk and other big cities. The Soviet military leaders would see this as an attack by NATO . Nuclear missiles have no “Sender” label.  The response from the Soviet Union would be an all out attack on all NATO countries, especially the USA. Knowing  that this was French strategy, the US would be forced to tell the Russians that they would stand up for Europe. The French nukes were intended to force US policy.

Deterrence works only if the adversary knows what you may be able to do if he attacks you. In this case we must ask if the US knew what the French policy was and accepted its implications. I a  discussion which I had  with General Lee Butler about ten years ago he said that only when in 1991 he became Commander in Chief of the US Strategic Command did he learn that the French nuclear doctrine was primarily intended to force the American hand.  If this was not generally known in the US leadership, how could the US leaders tell the Russians they intended to stand up for Europe, by force if not by will. You can be too clever.

Today: Nukes keep peace and increase self-esteem inFrance.

The French nuclear strategy today is less diabolic, but not more rational and not more ethical. A French minister of defense said recently that if France was attacked by terrorists, the country supporting these terrorists would be subject to nuclear retaliation.  Polls in France report that many or most French citizens  say that they need to keep their nukes against the flow of immigrants from North Africa.  How the nukes are going to be used in this context is not discussed.

At  the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, we recently met with M. Martin Briens, Deputy Director of the new section for Nuclear Proliferation and Disarmament. When asked why France today needs its nuclear weapons while Germany can do without, he said that Germany was under the nuclear umbrella. One might ask, whose umbrella? As reasons why France should have and keep its nuclear weapons, he listed : 1. We have them. History justifies. 2. We have only good intentions, others, e.g. Iran, have evil intentions. 3. We have the right according to the NPT. 4. China is increasing its nuclear weapons force, soon to be equal to that of France.  I general there was so much talk about China in the attempts to justify French nukes that we almost felt that China was about  to invade France.

Fear of a nuclear weapons free world

The core of his thinking was however clear, beyond all the muddled arguments: A world without nuclear weapons is unstable. In such a world there would be much less deterrence against war.  Nuclear weapons keep peace.

This is of course a classical argument. If we look back over the time since World War II we can muster strong claims both for and against this theory. Here is not the place to review this discussion. We in the peace movement argue that had nuclear deterrence between the USA and the Soviet Union failed we would not be here to argue.  And we were pretty close to extinction on more than one occasion, notably in 1983. If nuclear weapons are allowed to persist they will be used.

It may be appropriate to remind ourselves that in a world without nuclear weapons the US military superiority would be enormous and sufficient to achieve what the nuclear deterrence might be doing today. Maybe this, the US military hegemony, is what France fears most of all?

Things may be changing?

The discussion on nuclear disarmament has been heavily censored in France, as has any discussion on nuclear strategy.  However, things may be changing. Four previous political and military leaders with a high status in France have written an article in the journal Le Monde Oct 15 2009. They are Alain Juppé and Michel Rocard, both previous Prime ministers , Bernard Norlain, General and former commander of the air combat force, and Alain Ricard, former minister of Defense. They argue that the risk of nuclear proliferation is great and increasing. Many nations may acquire nuclear weapons in the next decade or two. In that situation the ”old”  nuclear weapon states cannot force their will upon these states, for fear of nuclear retaliation. We should start a debate if not the time has come for France to greatly decrease its dependence on nuclear weapons, in order to make our anti-proliferation agenda credible.

Thus the arguments were quite similar to those from the US “Gang of Four” in their publications in Wall Street Journal in Jan. 2008 and Jan. 2009. But of course, the French paper made no reference to the US article, nor to the British, German or Polish publications with the same arguments and written by previous leaders in foreign policy and defense. France has its own independent agenda and does not follow anyone’s lead.  And the paper only asked for discussions, not for action.

The publication was within hours followed by another article, long on words and short on arguments, written by a well known journalist, Jean Guisnel. He argued that France should not disarm, because no one else would follow. This argument is used repeatedly by all those who oppose disarmament. They pretend that unilateral disarmament has been proposed,  which is never the case.   What is and should be discussed is: How best to achieve a multilateral, transparent, verifiable nuclear disarmament? How to make credible that the ultimate goal is Zero nuclear weapons, so as to make nuclear wannabe s

Remember Mururoa!

France may be the last and the most difficult holdout. But when the endgame of nuclear abolition begins, even France will see the writing on the wall.

If not, remember Mururoa! When the President of France  threatened to continue the nuclear tests on that crumbling  island, we took to the streets and poured good Bordeaux into the gutters. It worked that time. It could work again.

Gunnar Westberg

Past President of IPPNW, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear war.

Here below is the text written by Juppé, Norlain, Ricard, and Rocard,

available at :


here translated by Peter Low.

The comment  published  four  hours later in le Point by

jean Guisnel, a leading journalist specialized in defense matters , is accessible in French

on :



The nuclear bomb, conceived in the extreme struggle of World War II, became

the tool of mutual deterrence for the two protagonists in the Cold War, and

was acquired also by the UK, France and China. Deterrence, associated with the

strategic supremacy of the two superpowers of the time, played a role in

limiting armed conflict during the Cold War, and in part has retained that

function subsequently. But two deep changes in the world scene force us to

reexamine the role of nuclear weapons for tomorrow.

Firstly, the variety of conflicts since the end of the superpower blocs means

that the mechanisms of deterrence have much less gripping power than they had.

Many of the players involved engage in conflict with purely local objectives;

they do not respond to pressures from any global power, nor do they touch the

vital interests of the nuclear powers. The nuclear states, for their part,

have opted for sustainable cooperative policies in their mutual relations. The

only flagbearers of global contestation are non-state actors trying to spread

their fundamentalism. The strategic applicability of deterrence is therefore

reduced by larger and larger “dead corners”.

Secondly, the regulating instrument constituted by the anti-proliferation

agreements since the Treaty of 1968 (the NPT) has lost its effectiveness. Two

or three decades ago it succeeded in leading some states to not acquire

nuclear weapons or to renounce them. But the commitments made by the nuclear

powers, commitments that were fundamental to the equilibrium of the system,

were not carried through.

Israel, India and Pakistan have entered the “club” without resistance, the

settlement of the worst regional crises has not been achieved and possessors

of nuclear weapons have made only limited progress in the disarmament process

that they signed up to.

The failures of non-prolifération, now confirmed and accentuated by the

actions of Iran and North Korea, have cumulative consequences: the legitimacy

of the existing agreements is weakened by the proliferations that have already

been accepted, and the effectiveness of a system founded on a small number of

players knowing their adversaries’

strategic coherence is undermined by the arrival of newcomers. With this

phenomenon there are risks of enthusiasm being unsustainable because there are

so many actors and because the institutions of one of them could be unstable.

International security is therefore gravely weakened.

Let us add that the relative successes won against the proliferation of

certain other types of weapons may be rendered fragile by increases in the

most powerful weapon of mass destruction, the nuclear bomb.

The consequence of these observations is clear: successful non-proliferation

is a primary necessity for peace, and it depends on urgent and much more

radical initiatives being taken by the five nuclear powers recognised by the

NPT. They must undertake a process leading in a planned way to complete

disarmament, they must bring into it the three /de facto/ nuclear powers, they

must abandon all projects for developing new weapons, and they must take more

initiatives and political risks so as to overcome major regional crises.

Barack Obama, the President of the USA, has adopted some very promising

positions, first in his speech in Prague on April 6 and his meetings with

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev. A major strategic movement may be getting

under way. But the predictable obstacles are huge: the US political and

military establishment’s attachment to the acquired symbols of power, the

Russian and Chinese leaders’ distrust of change, the regional strategies of

India, Pakistan and Israel, and the difficulty of persuading North Korea and

Iran to renounce their programmes.

In this debate, France has a special place by virtue of her tradition of

independence, her sense of responsibility as seen in the strict sufficiency of

her arsenal and her solid safety regime, and her patient and constructive

participation in all initiatives for limitation and effective monitoring of

weapons. She has the same great interest as the other nuclear powers have in

reestablishing credible non-proliferation.

The political message of peace and justice that she wants the world to hear

requires her to be a dynamic and creative player in the process that may be

starting, the process leading to effective and balanced disarmament which is

hoped for by the vast majority of the planet’s peoples, including all our

European partners.

We the signatories of the present declaration, inspired by our experience in

this field, express the wish that France should resolutely affirm her

commitment to the success of this disarmament process and her resolution to

draw the logical conclusions from it, when the time comes, as they affect her

own capacities. France should open the necessary debates within her democratic

institutions and prepare actively for the coming dates of negotiation,

starting with the quinquennial Review Conference for the NPT in 2010.

**Signed **

**Alain Juppé,** former Prime Minister; **Bernard Norlain,** General, former

commander of the air combat force; **Alain Richard****, **former Minister of

Defense ministre; **Michel Rocard****,** former Prime Minister.

Translated into English by © Peter Low (NZ) for ACDN

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