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Commentary | 26 February 2011

France and Nuclear Disarmament: Speech by President Josselin de Rohan


President de ROHAN

All-Party Group on Global Security and Non-Proliferation

February 10, 2011

Thank you for inviting me to discuss French policy on deterrence and nuclear disarmament.
My presentation will focus on three specific points:
1. The role of nuclear deterrence in France’s defence strategy;
2. The current situation of France’s nuclear forces;
3. France’s position in the debate on disarmament.


1 The role of nuclear deterrence in France’s defence strategy

The 2008 French White Paper on Defence and National Security confirms that Nuclear deterrence remains an essential foundation of our National Security Strategy. It is the ultimate guarantee of the security and independence of France. It is one of the conditions of our strategic autonomy. Generally speaking, there is a strong political consensus in France – from the right to the left side of our political spectrum – on the fundamental role of nuclear deterrence.

The first works on the military use of nuclear force bring us back to the 1950s. As you may know, this is General de Gaulle who first decided to build an independent nuclear deterrence force for France, in the early 1960s.

In order to understand this decision, you have to remember 1940 and what it means for France. More than a military defeat, 1940 represents the most serious injury ever done to France’s sovereignty. With the help of nuclear deterrence, France wants to make sure that its existence and its vital interests could never be threatened again without causing unacceptable damages to its enemy.

We usually say that nuclear deterrence is our Nation’s life insurance.

This doctrine has been conceived during the Cold War era and France is not anymore exposed to the risk of a direct invasion. But the end of the Cold War was neither the end of history, nor the insurance that our vital interests would never be threatened again. Nuclear deterrence gives us a long-term guarantee.

This guarantee appears to be still necessary for many reasons: several countries are currently raising the level of their nuclear arsenal or actively looking forward to do so, while some others have not given up yet, as we did the idea to develop chemical or biological weapons. Furthermore, an unexpected changing of the international context, generally referred as a « strategic surprise », cannot be excluded on a 30-to-50 years scale.

As a consequence of this doctrine, we consider that we must master our own nuclear forces in total independence. This will has caused many tensions between General de Gaulle and the American administrations. However, this attitude did not imply from our part any kind of anti-Americanism. France simply underlines that it could never be 100% certain that, if it happened to be threatened by another country, the United States wouldn’t hesitate to use their nuclear weapons in order to defend us.
This choice of independency has been playing an important role in France’s decision to leave NATO’s permanent command structures in 1966. However, France never left the Alliance and, with the 1967 Ailleret-Lemnitzer Agreements, a very close coordination was established between French defence plans and SHAPE’s.

As a matter of fact, NATO has recognized quite early the legitimacy of France’s nuclear deterrence force. In the 1974 Ottawa Declaration, NATO stated that « the independent strategic nuclear forces of the United Kingdom and France, which have a deterrent role of their own, contribute to the overall deterrence and security of the Allies ». This sentence has been repeated in every NATO official documents ever since, and more recently in NATO’s new Strategic Concept, adopted in Lisbon in 2010.


2 – The current position in relation to France’s nuclear forces

Even though the Cold War is now behind us, nuclear deterrence remains a fundamental part of our defence strategy. However, we did adapt our doctrine to the end of the bipolar world and to the new threats that appeared in the past decades.
The level of our nuclear arsenal is now ruled by the concept of « strict sufficiency », which is very similar to UK’s concept of « minimum effective deterrence ». This concept means that we maintain our nuclear arsenal up to the lowest possible level in order to keep an effective deterrence capability on a 15-to-20 years scale.

Strict sufficiency has led us to reduce by 50% the volume of our arsenal since the end of the Cold War:
• In 1996, we decided to give up our ground-to-ground component by dismantling our missiles located on the Albion plateau in Provence, and our 30 short-range Hades mobile missiles. By 1998, our ground-to-ground component was entirely dismantled.
• We significantly reduced our sea-based component, from 6 to 4 submarines. 4 submarines are necessary if we want to always have one of them in operation, and possibly a second one, in case of an international crisis. Each of our submarines can carry 16 ballistic missiles. The new ballistic missile M51 has an inter-continental range and is able to deliver 6 nuclear warheads.
• We also reduced our airborne component and the number of our planes. Our Airforce now has only 2 nuclear squadrons. The Rafale from our aircraft carrier can also carry a nuclear weapon, and we have a cruise missile at disposal, the ASMP/A missile.

A debate exists in France whether or not to maintain both of these two components. On one side, submarines’ discretion makes them invulnerable, and our second strike capability is mainly based on them. On the other side, aircrafts can be seen and are quite impressive, which is a way to show our determination to our adversary. Therefore, those two components appear to be quite complementary. It offers a bigger range of striking options.
In total, our arsenal is currently inferior to 300 nuclear warheads, which represent half of what we had in 1990.

We totally dismantled our fissile material production facilities, both our enrichment plant for highly enriched uranium at Pierrelatte and our plutonium producing plant at Marcoule. These dismantling operations are still in process.

France and the United Kingdom have been the first nuclear-weapon states to sign (in 1996) and ratify (in 1998) the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). We have also completely dismantled our nuclear test centers, located in the South Pacific, in a transparent and irreversible manner. France no longer retains the capacity to carry out further nuclear testing and now guarantees the efficiency of its arsenal by simulation means. On this specific matter, the 2010 London Treaty put on the agenda the construction of a franco-british common facility in the French region of Burgundy (Bourgogne).


3 – France’s position in the debate on disarmament

This position has sometimes been misunderstood and wrongly caricatured. France has been blamed for not subscribing to President Obama’s vision of a world without nuclear weapons. As a matter of fact, President Obama himself has voiced quite a few reservations on his vision in his very same speech, when he expressly said that “This goal will not be reached quickly, perhaps not in my lifetime” and more especially when he added “Make no mistake : as long as these weapons exist, the United States will maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary, and guarantee that defense to our allies”.
Ever since President Obama’s speech in Prague in April 2009, France has defended a realistic and balanced approach of disarmament, both within NATO structures and during the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference.

This approach is linked to three main ideas:

1) Firstly, nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation must be taken together. No true progress in the field of disarmament can ever be made if we fail to fix proliferation crisis and to guarantee the respect of the NPT by its signing members. Proliferation keeps curbing disarmament. France does not agree with those who think that proliferation is a consequence of the slowness of disarmament. India, Pakistan, North Korea and Iran started to develop their programs at the very moment the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and France were actively reducing their arsenals.

2) Secondly, disarmament is a matter of concrete facts and commitments, and it can hardly be ruled by slogans or formal positions. As nuclear-weapon state, France has already achieved quite a lot in order to encourage disarmament. Many nuclear-weapon states didn’t go as far as we did.
For example, we are still waiting for more significant reductions in the American and Russian arsenals, which represent together about 95% of the global stock. More reductions are necessary, beyond those mentioned in the new START Treaty, not only on their operationally deployed weapons but also on their stocks and their tactical nuclear weapons.
We are also waiting for an effort from China. This is the only nuclear-weapon state to keep raising its level of capabilities, while maintaining a total opacity on the volume of its nuclear forces.
We call for the United States, China, India, Pakistan, Israël, Iran, North Korea and Egypt to ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT).
We call for China, India and Pakistan to end their production of fissile material, and for Pakistan to accept the opening of negotiations concerning a Fissile Materials cut-off Treaty.
This type of concrete commitments would allow the international community to progress on the way of nuclear disarmament, and we give it much more credits than the abstract adhesion to a far-away prospect of a world without nuclear weapons.

3) Thirdly, and just like President Obama said in his famous speech, we consider that we cannot give up the principle of nuclear deterrence as long as nuclear arsenals and risks of proliferation still exist. We clearly expressed our point of view several times within NATO during the discussions about the New Strategic Concept. The final document reaffirms this idea, along with the fact that Missile Defense should complete deterrence, and not replace it, on which we agree too.

We want to insist on the necessity to maintain a nuclear deterrence capacity in Europe. We think that a nuclear-free Europe would be weakened and condemned to strategic powerlessness, while a noticeable arsenal still exists in Russia, while nuclear arsenals are being developed in Asia, and while the nuclearization of the Middle East is getting closer from reality everyday.

Once again, these three axes of the French policy are the source of a large consensus in France.
Our Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Armed Forces have entrusted Jean-Pierre Chevènement, former Minister under the presidency of François Mitterrand, with a report on these specific issues. I brought with me a digest of this report, on which you can read Mr Chevènement’s conclusions in English. These conclusions have been approved by our commission a year ago, in February 2010. You will see that this report supports our government’s positions on that matter.

As a conclusion, I will say that the NPT Review Conference has pretty much confirmed France’s official vision and purposes, even though the strengthening of the fight against proliferation didn’t go as far as we wanted. The several commitments agreed by nuclear forces in the field of nuclear disarmament have been reaffirmed, although it has not been disconnected from the context of global security.
France also subscribes to the formulation of NATO’s new Strategic Concept, which is very close from the UN Security Council’s resolution n°1887. NATO commits to « the goal of creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons » and restates that « disarmament and non-proliferation contribute to peace, security and stability, and should ensure undiminished security for all Alliance members ». Along with NATO, we support the objective of nuclear disarmament, but we refuse any unilateral action that would undermine our capacity to deter by a lack of security conditions.

I think that this is a realistic approach that all of us, both French and British, should defend within the international institutions.

Thank you for listening to me. I will be pleased to answer your questions if you have any.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.