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PARIS, Jun 30 2009 (IPS) - As the international war of words over nuclear programmes heats up, with North Korea threatening to strengthen its “nuclear deterrence” against the United States, countries such as France are taking a position that some analysts describe as ambiguous and hypocritical.
France and Britain are the two countries in Western Europe that are nuclear weapon states. While French official policy is that stockpiles should be reduced and testing stopped, the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy has not indicated a commitment to total nuclear disarmament.
Sarkozy does not, however, want to see certain other countries developing nuclear weapons. At a joint press conference in June, he and U.S. President Barack Obama warned both North Korea and Iran against developing such arms.
“Iran has the right to civilian nuclear power but not a military nuclear capability,” Sarkozy said, after condemning North Korea’s nuclear test in May.
But some analysts say the French position is two-faced.
“All this talk is hypocritical,” says Pierre-Emmanuel Veck, spokesman for the Sortir du Nucleaire Network (Phasing out the Nuclear Age), the main French anti-nuclear coalition, which groups 841 organisations.
France has an “ambiguous” position, Veck adds. Sarkozy would like to reduce the country’s nuclear warheads, but the government is reluctant to do so while other countries such as the United States and Russia keep their own stockpiles high, and while there is threat from “unstable” countries such as Iran and North Korea.
France says it has reduced its number of air-launched weapons by a third, cutting its nuclear arsenal to around 300 nuclear warheads by last September.
Sarkozy has said that global disarmament must be based on “reciprocity” – a kind of ‘we’ll get rid of ours if you get rid of yours’ approach that some critics find unacceptable.
France also says it is the only one of the five original nuclear weapon states to have dismantled its testing site and fissile material production installations. Other countries have not been clear about their own measures, and the situation is set to become even murkier in the months before next May’s Review Conference of the 1970 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Like the previous conference five years ago, the 2010 event could end in disappointment for those seeking disarmament.
“Disarmament is not going to happen any time soon as long as the discourse remains at this level,” Veck says. “Having nuclear capability is a sign of power, and countries are using nuclear arms as a bargaining tool for many things, including aid.”
Analysts say the “new nuclear states” North Korea, Iran, Israel, India and Pakistan will continue to assert their right to develop nuclear programmes, while the stance of the original five nuclear weapon states – France, the United Kingdom, China, the United States, and Russia – leaves much to be desired.
“Most people in NATO countries don’t realise that their governments continue to sanction the use of nuclear weapons,” says Uta Zapf, co- president of Parliamentarians for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament (PNND), an international network that provides parliamentarians with up-to- date information on nuclear weapons policies.
“Nor do they realise that some NATO countries – Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey – still host U.S. nuclear weapons on their soil for use if conflict breaks out,” she said in a statement. (France rejoined the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation earlier this year after a 43-year absence.)
“Nuclear weapons, like landmines and cluster munitions, are indiscriminate, inhumane, immoral and illegal. They must all be prohibited and eliminated,” added Zapf.
Some groups in France would also like to see civilian nuclear programmes scaled back, and more money spent on renewable energy, according to the Sortir du Nucleaire Network. France currently gets about 80 percent of its energy from 59 nuclear power plants located across the country.
The government plans to build solar plants in each French region by 2011, says ecology minister Jean-Louis Borloo, but it is not clear how that will affect the country’s nuclear programme.
In the run-up to the Review Conference of the 189 ‘states parties’, or signatories, to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, France has been making moves to delineate its own principles as well as those of its European partners.
When France held the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union last year, Sarkozy sent a letter to United Nations Secretary-General Bank Ki- moon outlining the EU’s proposals for furthering nuclear disarmament.
“Europe wishes to act for peace,” Sarkozy wrote last December. “This is true whether the question is the struggle against terrorism, the struggle against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their vectors, or the management of crises.
“It is true also when the issue is disarmament, notably nuclear disarmament. Europe is particularly concerned, since two member states have nuclear weapons,” he added.
The EU proposals include “the universal ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the completion of its verification regime, as well as the dismantling as soon as possible of all nuclear testing facilities in a way that is transparent and open to the international community,” Sarkozy wrote.
He said the EU was also calling for the beginning of “negotiations for banning production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons, as well as implementation of an immediate moratorium on production of such material.”
In June, in reference to Iran, Sarkozy declared, “We want peace, we want dialogue, and we want to help them develop. But we do not want military nuclear weapons to spread.”
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