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PARIS, Jul 18 2012 (IPS) - The changing international political order and a dramatic budgetary situation at home are forcing France to consider giving up the extremely expensive nuclear arsenal the country has maintained since the late 1950s.
To make this pressing necessity appear as a virtue, some French political leaders and analysts are attempting to posit the move as a step towards international efforts to update the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and reduce global nuclear arsenals.
But the simple truth is that the French government, facing a major budgetary crisis, can no longer afford to maintain a costly armoury that, as former minister of defence, Paul Quilès, put it, “isn’t supposed to be fired in the first place”.
Former prime minister Michel Rocard, a member of the ruling Socialist Party (SP), inadvertently opened the debate in mid-June during a television interview with the Paris-based broadcaster BFM in which he stated that by giving up its nuclear cache, “France would save 16 billion euros per year, and renounce a completely useless weapon.”
Later, Rocard called his statements “a joke”, and argued that discussing nuclear disarmament was “such a serious issue, that if you want to question it, you have to do it cautiously, and give yourself time to discuss it and to listen to serious arguments.”
But jokes aside, Rocard’s statement provoked an avalanche of debate without a definitive conclusion.
For the time being, Socialist President Francois Hollande has denied that his government has any intention of renouncing the nuclear weapon in the foreseeable future.
Hollande’s position is based on the old argument that nuclear power grants France an exceptional, albeit delusory, political status, placing it on a par with the other four permanent members of the United Nations security council: Britain, China, Russia, and the U.S.A.
Without the nuclear weapon, France would be reduced to its actual geopolitical role: of a middle-range power, battered by economic mediocrity and a volatile domestic climate.
But Boniface warned, “If France were to renounce the nuclear weapon it would certainly degrade its credibility as an international power and provoke its own demotion on strategic affairs.”
Boniface recalled, “When Charles de Gaulle (in the late 1950s) decided to equip France with a nuclear arsenal, his objective was to maintain our country as a global power, along with the U.S.A. and the Soviet Union.”
In other words, for De Gaulle’s France, the nuclear weapon was more a geopolitical emblem than a military necessity. In a cryptic way, De Gaulle admitted as much, in an official statement issued in December 1961, at the height of the Cold War.
“In ten years’ time, we might need to kill 80 million Russian citizens,” De Gaulle said. “I believe that (the Soviet Union) wouldn’t attack somebody able to kill 80 million Russians, even if the (Soviets) themselves were able to kill 800 million French (citizens).”
France’s economic woes
Fifty years later, with memories of the Cold War fading into the realm of a bad nightmare, the possibility of having to kill 80 million Russians is as unthinkable as ever. France’s new national nightmare is the sovereign debt crisis, and a deteriorating economic performance in the international arena.
Hollande’s government, in office since mid-June, is this year facing an unexpected budgetary shortfall of up to 10 billion euros, on top of the previously anticipated deficit of 4.4 percent of the gross national product (GNP).
In a report released on Jul. 2, the country’s general accounting office warned that France would have to raise taxes and reduce expenses to meet the high deficit of 4.4 percent originally foreseen by Hollande’s predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
According to European Commission figures, in 2013 France will have to increase revenues or reduce expenses by 24 billion euros to limit the deficit to three percent.
To add insult to injury, leading French enterprises, such as carmaker Peugeot, have announced massive layoffs and major industrial facility relocations abroad.
Hollande is thus left with a staggering political challenge: to simultaneously salvage state finances and support French industry to endure the present economic downturn and prepare a more competitive future.
According to various analysts and politicians, the temptation to reduce useless spending – especially on a purely symbolic nuclear arsenal – and instead invest in more rational endeavours, has never been greater.
Quilés, former chair of the parliamentary defence commission, told IPS that the “nuclear weapon is an expensive absurdity.” He dismissed arguments that the nuclear weapon constituted a “life insurance” for France. “It is more a death insurance,” he said.
He believes the costs of the French nuclear arsenal will most certainly increase in the immediate future, given the necessity to update weapons and procure expensive supplementary equipment, such as military submarines.
Retired general Bernard Norlain, head of the military cabinet at the prime minister’s office between 1986 and 1992, also called for nuclear disarmament.
“The arguments in favour of nuclear (arms) were pertinent at the time of the Cold War, but the global strategic situation has changed radically since 1990,” he told IPS. “We cannot continue arguing the same way as in the 1980s.”
Norlain, who has rallied behind the international project Global Zero, that calls for a world without nuclear weapons, noted regretfully that Hollande appears to be bowing to pressure to maintain a useless asset.
“Hollande’s declarations on the matter are extremely conformist,” Norlain pointed out.
But other military experts, who asked not be identified, said that no head of state would choose to go down in history as the one who unilaterally erased France’s status as a nuclear power.
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