French Nuclear Policy After the Cold War: How to Combine Deterrence and Arms Control1

Camille Grand,Associate Lecturer, Paris


As a "second tier" nuclear (NWS) weapon state, France has had various experiences with nuclear weapons, which define the basis for a "French nuclear exception."2 A non-nuclear weapon state in the late 1940s and 1950s, France promoted disarmament and experienced the limits of alliances in the nuclear era during the Suez crisis. An emerging NWS in the late 1950s and 1960s, France encountered the first non-proliferation efforts of the superpowers and developed its own forces independently in a hostile environment. As an established NWS in the 1970s and 1980s, it proved reluctant to undertake arms control and non-proliferation efforts. A status quo nuclear power in the 1990s, France has taken an active part in preserving the international nuclear order by promoting non-proliferation, accepting some steps toward nuclear disarmament, but maintaining its nuclear capability. After a quick overview of French nuclear policy during the Cold War, this paper will present the current French rationale for keeping nuclear weapons and its diplomacy in the field of nuclear disarmament.

French Defence and Nuclear Policy During the Cold War

The Origins of the French Nuclear Choice

On February 13, 1960, France became the fourth country to test a nuclear device by detonating its first atomic bomb in Reggane (Sahara). President de Gaulle celebrated this explosion as a great national achievement: "Hurrah for France! Since this morning, she is stronger and prouder." In 1964, the Force de frappe had become a reality with the first nuclear bomber squadron of Mirage IV entering operational service. France has since developed the whole range of nuclear capabilities and weaponry. These technical and military achievements were made possible by the commitment of almost of almost all French governments since 1945. The French programme started slowly, after having been delayed by World War II.3 The Commissariat a l'Energie Atomique (CEA or Atomic Energy Commission) was created in 1945 and engaged itself more and more in military research. The Fourth Republic leaders (of various political parties ranging from the socialists to the right) made the essential decisions secretly.

A few French military strategists (the future Generals Ailleret and Gallois) started working on the advantages of a national deterrent force in the 1950s, underlining the relative cheapness of nuclear weapons4 and their role in insuring an independent defence policy.5 When General de Gaulle returned to power in May 1958, the decision to test a nuclear device by the first trimester of 1960 had already been taken by Premier Felix Gaillard in April 1958. The de Gaulle Administration confirmed this commitment and provided the necessary budgetary support to establish an independent nuclear force. The true role of de Gaulle was more on the doctrinal side, as he clearly decided in the early 1960s that the French Force de frappe was to be truly and completely independent, whereas leaders of the Fourth Republic were more tempted to view it as an asset within the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) or a united Europe.

The decisive element in France's decision to go nuclear lies in its strategic culture and history. As a leading European and world power for over three centuries, France certainly wanted to maintain this status and, in the 1950s and 1960s, nuclear weapons' acquisition was viewed as essential to that end. In addition, nuclear weapons had a strategic and political value, not so much because they provided France with a compelling (positive) power vis-a-vis the USSR, which they never did, but rather because they provided France with freedom of action and leverage within the Western Alliance vis-a-vis the United States, and in the Third World. This political value of nuclear weapons cannot be reduced to the prestige conferred by them. Other factors in this decision are rooted in contemporary French history. Nuclear weapons gave--or at least were perceived to give--France an answer to an often underestimated security need: the trauma caused by the defeat and invasion of France in the 1940s and what had led to it. In the 1950s and 1960s, the memories of three invasions in less than 80 years, including the humiliating defeat of 1940 were still quite vivid. The nuclear choice was a "never again" answer to these memories. With such premises, which are to a large extent unique to France, the nuclear choice has much deeper roots than a simple quest for grandeur would suggest. The perception of nuclear weapons as a unique tool for an autonomous defence policy and as an unchallenged war-prevention asset made them the right answer at a certain point in French and international history.

The Weak to the Strong Nuclear Posture

Once the decision to develop a nuclear arsenal had been made, French strategists faced the task of defining a realistic posture for a medium NWS vis-a-vis a superpower. Accordingly, the French nuclear arsenal and strategy were designed and developed to insure credibility vis-a-vis the Soviet Union in a "weak to the strong" posture.6 Behind this concept is an idea strongly advocated by General Gallois since the late 1950s: namely, that a medium power can deter a much stronger superpower by the threat of massive retaliation. As nuclear weapons can inflict destruction at an unacceptable level, a handful of these weapons suffices for a credible deterrent vis-a-vis any threat as long as three conditions are met: the arsenal needs to reach a certain level of credibility (i.e. a second strike capability), the vital interests of the "weak" have to be at stake, and the political decision-maker should be ready to use the weapons.7 Even though some authors use the idea of "proportional deterrence" to qualify this posture, it is not part of the official language used to describe this policy.8

Nuclear deterrence enters into play only if French "vital interests" are threatened. The definition of these "vital interests" (interets vitaux) is deliberately kept imprecise, but at least covers the national "sanctuary" (sanctuaire, the national territory and its surroundings). "Deterrence is designed to avoid war, not to win it." This saying of President Mitterrand is the cornerstone of French strategic thinking and the basis for the French rejection of the so-called "nuclear battle." In this framework, pre-strategic (i.e. tactical) nuclear weapons are not an extension or even a limitation of conventional warfare; they only exist in limited numbers to deliver a single "ultimate warning" (ultime avertissement), before the possible all-out strategic strike. To fulfil these roles, France only needs a limited nuclear capability, which follows the principle of "reasonable sufficiency" (suffisance raisonnable). Finally, the decision to use nuclear weapons belongs to the President de la Republique and to him only: in classical French nuclear thinking, there can be no form of decision-sharing, since the "autonomy of decision" is the guarantee of national independence and of French strategic sovereignty. Francois Mitterrand bluntly summarised this last principle by stating in 1983 that "La dissuasion, c'est moi."9 The political will of the decision-maker, therefore, plays an important part in the French posture. All these principles follow one single goal: insure the credibility of a medium power's deterrence vis-a-vis a superpower. In this case, credibility does not rest primarily on numerical parity but on the principle of sufficiency. Of course, France puts its own existence at stake in the process: that is why the threat of massive--thus unacceptable--retaliation is credible. This is in every respect a "brinkmanship" posture: "whereby caution is forced on the aggressor uncertain as to how far to the 'brink' (France) would be willing to go."10

Having described the strategic logic of nuclear weapons acquisition in the 1960s, it is also important to point out that this nuclear effort was extremely costly in financial terms, even for an industrialised country like France. At its peak in 1967, it represented 1.2 per cent of the French GDP, 26.4 per cent of the defence budget, and 51.4 per cent of the procurement share of this defence budget. Altogether, it has remained above the 30 per cent mark of procurement for 30 years (from 1963 to 1992) and between 0.4 and 1.2 per cent of GDP per year. This allowed France to deploy a small superpower arsenal, based on the classical triad, with nuclear bombers (operational since 1964), ground-to-ground ballistic intermediate range missiles (from 1971 to 1996), and nuclear submarines carrying sea-to-ground ballistic missiles (since 1971). France also developed tactical weapons, even though the French strategic community always discussed their role (they were finally called "pre-strategic" instead of tactical weapons). France's nuclear force remained modest in size, growing from a few dozen warheads in the 1960s and early 1970s to a few hundred in the 1980s. It reached its highest point in 1991, with 540 warheads deployed, and has slightly decreased in the recent years, down to 450 warheads.11 For both budgetary and strategic reasons, France also renounced very early to develop certain types of weapons as inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The Current French Rationale on Nuclear Weapons

In spite of minor changes due to the enhancement of French nuclear capabilities, the basis of the French nuclear doctrine has remained unchallenged for over 25 years. Even the election of a Socialist President in 1981 did not lead to any major reappraisal. There have been many debates, for instance, on the issue of Europeanisation, but they have never led to drastic changes of a posture that, according to French strategists, only gained in credibility as time passed and as US and Russian stockpiles grew to insane levels. The end of the Cold War itself was not viewed as a reason to change the nuclear doctrine, which was consequently only slightly adapted to the new security environment. This lack of doctrinal reappraisal was criticised by isolated voices, such as Lucien Poirier, who wrote an essay describing the French military doctrine as facing a "crisis of its foundations."12

An Enduring Reliance on Nuclear Weapons

In the early 1990s, the fading of the "designated" enemy, and the new concern about proliferation in the wake of the Persian Gulf War, led to a new debate on the role of nuclear weapons in French security. On the one hand, most French strategists and decision-makers continued to defend the existing policy, arguing that no changes were needed, since a nuclear posture that had deterred the Soviet Union (or at least was perceived or misperceived to have achieved such a goal) could deter any other country. This was clearly the view of President Mitterrand. On the other hand, some experts in the political, military, and academic communities advocated major strategic reappraisals. These experts suggested a modification of the French strategic concept from a "weak to the strong" war prevention deterrent posture to a so-called "strong to the weak" or "strong to the crazy" war-fighting strategy. Mirroring the US debate over counter-proliferation and also reflecting US-French disputes over "flexible response" during the Cold War, the debate ended up in a stalemate, since Francois Mitterrand, the last President, and his successor, Jacques Chirac, confirmed on several occasions the traditional deterrent posture.

Despite this debate on the revision of the nuclear concept, nuclear weapons continue to play a major role in the French defence posture, as the 1994 White Paper on Defence and all official documents have confirmed in the past few years. Moreover, France has made a new offer of concerted deterrence to its European partners. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the French consensus on nuclear issues has remained almost as strong as ever, both in public opinion and among the political parties. Since the end of the Cold War, no decision-maker or official document has criticised or challenged the role of nuclear weapons in French security policy. The assessment of threats and risks facing France in the short-to-mid term contained in the 1994 Livre blanc continues to justify a role for nuclear weapons in some worst case scenarios. French nuclear strategy itself has remained more or less the same, even though budgetary constraints and arms control efforts have led to downsizing of the deployed nuclear forces.

Beside being the first defence White Paper in 22 years, the 1994 Livre blanc sur la defense produced the longest official report on the threats and risks facing French security after the Cold War. While many aspects of the defence policy set out in the White Paper have been changed significantly by President Chirac,13 the threat assessment remains. In the first pages of the White Paper, one finds the following description of the post-Cold War international framework for France: "For the first time in its history, France does not face a direct military threat near its borders. However, new risks can affect its security and its defence...No one denies that the main and global threat--direct, concrete and measurable--that threatened our vital interest, has vanished today and probably for a long time."14

With regard to responses to this new strategic environment, the White Paper put the emphasis on conventional forces and clearly pointed to a reduced role for nuclear weapons in French strategy. Nevertheless, the French concept of nuclear deterrence was clearly reaffirmed. According to the White Paper, "The nuclear forces must permanently be capable of fulfilling two functions: to inflict a striking force causing unacceptable damage and liable to be repeated; to proceed to a limited striking force on military targets in view of the ultimate warning."15 The White Paper lists six scenarios, two of which clearly involve nuclear weapons (Nos. 2 and 6).

Table 1. The 1994 White Paper: The Two Nuclear Scenarios

Number Scenario Role of nuclear weapons

No. 2 Regional conflict that may "A deterrent manoeuvre

involve French "vital adapted to this particular

interests" in Europe or "in a context, might be necessary to

longer time-frame, in the accompany our decision to

Mediterranean and in the Near intervene."

and Middle East."

No. 6 "Resurgence of a major threat The role of nuclear deterrence

against Western Europe"; is central in this scenario.

although considered "hardly

plausible today," this

scenario, if it ever occurred,

would present "a deadly risk"

for France.

Source: Livre Blanc sur la defense, 1994

Although President Chirac indeed announced many reforms to the French defence policy after his election in 1995, the threat assessment made in the 1994 Livre blanc remains valid. What the Chirac Administration slightly modified are the answers to these threats, which are now based on four main "functions" (nuclear deterrence, prevention by intelligence and pre-positioned forces, force projection, and safety and protection of the national territory vis-a-vis new types of threats e.g. terrorism and drugs).16

This new wording justifies a reassessment of budgetary priorities from nuclear weapons and territorial defence to intelligence and force projection, and more specifically a justification for moving to a professional Army.

An Unchallenged Nuclear Posture

The Livre blanc rejected any evolution from a purely deterrent posture to a "war-fighting" strategy. It was greatly concerned with the specific issue of nuclear proliferation, which is mentioned in chapter 1 of the White Paper ("Evolution of risks and threats"). "Arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation agreements" are referred to in chapter 3 ("Reference framework of our defence policy"). The No. 2 scenario is, of course, the most interesting example of this new interest in proliferation. Nevertheless, the proliferation threat cannot be seen as the basis for a French counter-proliferation doctrine, as the US Administration views it, in spite of many efforts by some French politicians and military analysts to justify the creation of such a doctrine. The so-called "conventional deterrence" theories were described by the White Paper as "dangerous mistakes." Despite the efforts to shift from a deterrent posture to a first-strike strategy against emerging Third World, nuclear-armed rogue states, these ideas were abandoned as the discussions on the White Paper started. The word "counter-proliferation" not only remains taboo in the French official language, but the concept itself, after an interested first look, was not adopted in France.

There are a number of reasons why France did not move to adopt a counter-proliferation doctrine. First, the defenders of traditional deterrence (President Mitterrand in the first place) retained a key role in the decision-making process that led to the White Paper. Second, "American" counter-proliferation was criticised very early in France as inefficient and undermining deterrence and non-proliferation efforts. It was (improperly at times) almost only likened to a preemptive nuclear strike strategy, and was thus dismissed as inconsistent with the French deterrence posture. Under these circumstances, France did not develop an actual military counter-proliferation doctrine. Proliferation continues to be addressed primarily with the classic tools of non-proliferation and deterrence. Such proposals might reappear, however, if a consistent threat from the South was to be perceived or misperceived.

Altogether, the Livre blanc sur la defense 1994 was an extremely consensual paper. It did not challenge French defence policy and was obviously meant to adapt the Cold War posture more than to conceptualise a brand new strategy. It was clearly an expression of the traditional French consensus on defence. In order to preserve this consensus in a period of "cohabitation," it was decided to leave many options open and defer the tough decisions to the President to be elected in May 1995. Jacques Chirac did make many of these decisions. In the first place, he decided on the resumption of nuclear testing, which he judged necessary.17 Later, he announced several important disarmament initiatives.18 Finally, as a part of his redrafting of French defence policy, he reviewed and downsized the nuclear posture by dismantling the two ground-to-ground nuclear systems (Albion S-3 D missiles and Hades missiles). The new President nevertheless did not decide to change the nuclear strategy, as he stated on February 23, 1996: "This ambitious programme of adaptation and modernisation of our defence shows the will of France to continue to guarantee its ultimate security in any circumstances. Based on deterrence, the French nuclear strategy remains, ne variatur, a defensive one. Nevertheless any aggressor who would want to strike our vital interests must remain convinced of our capacity and resolution to preserve them."19 The election of a left-wing Parliamentary majority (Socialists, Communists, Greens) in June 1997 did not change this general trend. In a speech before the Institut des hautes etudes de defense nationale (IHEDN) in September 1997,20 the new Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, confirmed that France intended to retain a nuclear weapons capability. In this speech, he very clearly stated that "deterrence remains the pillar of our defence strategy." At the same time, the new government continued in the 1998 budget to cut nuclear spending. A Procurement Law for six years (Lot de programmation militaire 1995-2000), adopted in April 1994, implemented the White Paper. It confirmed the decline in nuclear spending, which started in 1990. The Procurement Law allotted 129 billion francs for equipment for the nuclear forces, primarily for the development and purchase of two of the four new-generation nuclear submarines (SNLE-NG) slated to replace the first generation SNLEs. In general terms, nuclear military spending has declined by more than a third since the end of the Cold War; falling from more than 40 per cent of the military procurement budget in the 1960s (1964-1969), to 30-35 per cent in the 1970s and in the 1980s, to about 30 per cent in the early 1990s, and less than 20 per cent at the time of this writing.

Table 2. French Nuclear Forces, End 1996

Weapon system No. deployed No. warheads deployed

Submarine-launched ballistic 48 MSBS M4 A/B 288 TN 70/71

missiles 16 M45 96 TN 75

Air-to-ground system 45 45 TN 81

ASMP/Mirage 2000

ASMP/Super-Etendard 24 20 TN 81

on aircraft carrier

Total around 450

Source: NRDC Nuclear Notebook (

Altogether, in the mid-to-long term, two points are clear as regards nuclear policy: France intends to retain a nuclear capability and a deterrence posture; and the budgetary constraints, combined with a set of new priorities (e.g. outer-space, projection capabilities, intelligence, and peace-keeping missions), will continue to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in French strategy and their share of military spending.

A "Concerted" European Deterrence?

Building up some form of common European nuclear policy is an old idea whose time has not yet come. Various proposals for Europeanisation of the French nuclear arsenal have been formulated since the Fifties. France, however, was always reluctant to share the core of nuclear deterrence, namely the decision-making. Only in January 1992 did President Mitterrand propose studying the basis for a European nuclear doctrine. Since this proposal, there has been an ongoing debate in France on the ways and means of nuclear cooperation in Western Europe.21 The 1994 Livre Blanc sur la defense also discussed this perspective in very general terms. In January 1995, Alain Juppe22 introduced the concept of "dissuasion concertee" (concerted deterrence), defined as a proposal for a "dialogue among equal partners" on nuclear issues.23 It would be unfair to see these proposals only as a tactical move to counter the campaign against French nuclear testing, even though this certainly played a role in the new French initiatives announced in the summer and fall 1995.24 The obvious lack of interest in this proposal expressed by the possible non-nuclear partners led France to practically drop the subject for a year. It nevertheless remains an important topic in France and is proposed in every single official paper or speech. Yet, despite the fact that France is more open than ever to discussions among Europeans, for the moment cooperation is more likely to develop among the three Western nuclear powers and with select non-nuclear states on an informal basis.

Even though the French proposal for "concerted deterrence" has not given birth to any formal agreement or talks among the European countries, the progress of bilateral Franco-British nuclear cooperation has raised some hopes. The key issue nevertheless remains the participation of non-nuclear weapon states (NNWS) in talks on concerted deterrence. Concerted deterrence faces for the moment a complete lack of public interest from European non-nuclear countries. Putting aside those with a long anti-nuclear tradition (e.g. Sweden and Ireland), even NATO members have so far shown very little support or interest, with the encouraging but relative exception of Germany in late 1996. The basis of German participation has been reset with the "Franco-German Concept on Security and Defence" issued after the Nuremberg Franco-German summit of December 1996.25 However, the public in Germany and elsewhere seems absolutely not ready to hear of any form of European common nuclear policy and, as a consequence, most governments will not take any risk on the topic, which is perceived as neither urgent nor vital. In any case, the topic of a common European nuclear policy is likely to remain a part of the European security debate and to reappear publicly once in a while and under various forms, as long as European construction goes on with two NWS and thirteen or more NNWS.

The French Nuclear Consensus

The enduring and broad-based political commitment to the establishment and upgrading of the nuclear Force de frappe is a French speciality among the democracies. Whereas the development of the British nuclear forces has always faced strong domestic opposition and hesitation, and US nuclear choices have been the product of heated internal debates and compromises between opposing views, the French nuclear consensus has faced no major opposition since the 1970s, when all major political parties declared themselves in favour of the national deterrence policy. Ever since, no government has faced major opposition concerning nuclear weapons policy. Furthermore, this political consensus has led to a wide consensus in public opinion. After the 1995 debate on nuclear testing, things went back to normal in France: nuclear issues were no longer a subject of public debate. As noted by Pascal Boniface and Francois Thual, the French nuclear consensus was rebuilt on "four pillars": "keeping a nuclear deterrence, refusing a 'war-fighting' strategy, Europeanising the French deterrence and promoting disarmament"26 as long it did not lead to the complete elimination of nuclear weapons in the short-term. The three leading French political parties (Gaullist RPR, centre-right UDF and Socialist PS) broadly share these principles. Moreover, a vast majority of the public opinion agrees with these views. The June 1997 Parliamentary election opened another round of "cohabitation," this time between a left-wing National Assembly, a government led by Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and Gaullist President Jacques Chirac. As already said, this comeback of the left to government is, however, unlikely to have a major impact on nuclear policies.

France and Nuclear Disarmament: A True and Difficult Commitment

Having opposed many arms control initiatives in the 1960s, France became a more active participant in arms control in the 1970s and joined the move toward arms reductions and non-proliferation in the early 1990s. After its more-than-symbolic unilateral gestures of nuclear disarmament in 1993-1996, the emphasis is no longer on reductions. France now appears more concerned about other areas of arms control and more interested in transparency measures. Further reductions could be envisaged, however, under certain conditions once the START I, II and possibly III Treaties are ratified and implemented.

In the early ages of nuclear arms control and disarmament, France demonstrated a great reluctance to join arms control treaties and negotiations. France never signed the Partial Test Ban Treaty (PTBT) of 1963, refused to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) for more than 20 years, and never took part in any bilateral or multilateral disarmament agreements. France even practised an "empty chair" policy in the various disarmament fora to protest the US-Soviet duopoly in arms control negotiations. The French also emphasised the overwhelming difference in the size of the existing nuclear arsenals between the superpowers and medium powers. During the 1970s and 1980s, France followed the same principles even though it proved more open-minded. It did join the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva but was still reluctant to sign any nuclear limitation agreement. In 1983, President Mitterrand set the conditions for French participation in nuclear disarmament: "correction of the fundamental differences" between the arsenals of the two superpowers and those of the other nuclear weapon states, end of the conventional disparity in Europe, and end of the race in anti-missile, anti-submarine and anti-satellite weapons.27

This policy of refusal to participate in nuclear disarmament has nevertheless undergone drastic changes since 1991. In the early 1990s, the new concern over nuclear proliferation and the global changes in international security led to a major policy shift. President Mitterrand announced this shift in his June 1991 United Nations speech promoting an international disarmament plan.28 Besides various actions in favour of chemical and conventional disarmament, France decided to join the NPT as a nuclear power (it acceded to the treaty in August 1992). In the years 1991 to 1993, the Socialist government announced various unilateral nuclear disarmament steps and initiated a moratorium on nuclear testing, which lasted for three years. Altogether, from 1991 to 1995, according to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, France completed a 15 per cent unilateral reduction of its nuclear arsenal.29 Since then, further unilateral steps have been decided on, and announced by, President Chirac,30 (dismantling of the plateau d'Albion 18 S-3D IRBMs and of the 30 short-range Hades missiles). Even though may of these reductions were mainly motivated by budgetary constraints and only a posteriori presented as disarmament measures, they nevertheless show a new trend in French nuclear policy. Until 1991, the French nuclear arsenal was growing in size and capacity. These decisions have thus put an end to growth in the arsenal and started a true disarmament process. From its peak in 1991 (540 deployed warheads), the French nuclear arsenal has been reduced to less than 450 warheads deployed. Finally, it is important to remember that the current French warheads stockpile remains below 5 per cent of the arsenals of either the United States or Russia, and was for a long time below 1 per cent.

As far as the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) is concerned, France was for decades strongly opposed to nuclear tests limitation or interdiction. Given its history of opposition, the decision announced on July 4, 1993 to participate in the CTBT negotiations was indeed a great step.31 After the announcement, France became an active participant in the Conference on Disarmament (CD) negotiations, and the French moratorium (1992-1995) contributed to the progress in the CTB talks. Even though (or because?)32 France conducted six tests in the fall and winter of 1995/96, it was, in August 1995, the first nuclear weapon state to support the "zero-yield option" in the CTBT negotiations ("prohibition of any nuclear weapon test explosion or any nuclear explosion, no matter how small.")33 The announcement of this decision, which was immediately followed by a US statement, was clearly a breakthrough in the CTBT negotiations, since other NWS rallied behind the same position later in 1995. France was among the first signatories of the CTBT in September 1996 and has taken a further step by closing its test site and signing the Rarotonga Treaty in March 1996, thereby becoming one of only two nuclear weapon states--with the UK--without a national test site available. The resumption of French nuclear testing appears unrealistic in the event of a failure of the CTBT or even of a single isolated nuclear test in India or elsewhere.

France has also announced new security assurances, both positive and negative, in a letter, dated April 6, 1995, to the UN Secretary General, and in a statement to the CD on the same day. On negative security assurances, France clarified the existing security assurances given in 1982,34 specifically: "France reaffirms that it will not use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states parties to the NPT, except in the case of an invasion or any other attack on France, its territory, its armed forces or other troops, or against its allies or a state toward which it has a security commitment, carried out or sustained by such a state in alliance or association with a nuclear-weapon state."35 This declaration harmonises the French position with the statements made by the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia. Its main novelty lies in the limitation of the assurances to NPT parties, which was not mentioned in the 1982 statement. On positive security assurances, France had abstained in 1968 when the United Nations Security Council voted on Resolution 255.36 It was, therefore, accordingly considered that France had never granted positive assurances. The French decision announced in April 1995 gave the following assurances: "France, as a Permanent Member of the Security Council, pledges that in the event of attack with nuclear weapons or the threat of such attack against a non-nuclear-weapon state party to the NPT, France will immediately inform the Security Council and act within the Council to ensure that the latter takes immediate steps to provide, in accordance with the Charter, necessary assistance to any state which is the victim of such an act of aggression." Following this statement, France co-sponsored the United Nations Security Council Resolution 984 (April 11, 1995). The French position on providing security assurances through nuclear-weapon-free zones (NWFZ) has also changed. Besides signing and ratifying both protocols of the Tlatelolco Treaty, France refused until recently to commit itself to the other existing NWFZ. This position has changed greatly since 1995. Not only did France support the "declaration on objectives and principles" wording on NWFZ at the 1995 NPT Review and Extension Conference, but it also signed two new treaties (Rarotonga and Pelindaba) in 1996.

France and Forthcoming Nuclear Arms Control Steps

France agrees with the principle of a cut-off treaty. It supported the idea of a cut-off agreement as early as December 1993 in a United Nations General Assembly vote and in 1995 backed the "early conclusion of negotiations on a non-discriminatory and universally applicable convention banning the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices" at the NPT conference. France stopped plutonium production for military purposes in 1992, and highly enriched uranium (HEU) production has ended as well, as President Chirac announced in February 1996. The political commitment to a fissile material cut-off agreement remains very strong, as recently stated by the new Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, in a September 1997 speech. A treaty would be a major disarmament step and would also allow for more transparency as the nuclear facilities of the five NWS would have to open their doors to more or less intrusive inspections.

As far as transparency and confidence-building measures are concerned, a strong reluctance still exists at least within military circles. One can, however, observe a new French openness in nuclear matters, which may mean that proposals of transparency measures could become more acceptable. Moreover, and since 1994-1995, there is a growing French readiness at least among the decision-makers to accept nuclear transparency (the military and nuclear establishments might prove more reluctant). On the issue of no-first-use of nuclear weapons, France remains extremely reluctant to make such a commitment, because it would be in contradiction with its deterrence strategy, which allows first use whenever vital interests are threatened. According to the French doctrine, it is precisely the credible threat of use that allows nuclear weapons to prevent war and, therefore, the use of nuclear weapons, especially since France's strategy is by definition non-aggressive (i.e., it will not use nuclear weapons first in an act of aggression but only in response to an aggression). There have been some supporters of no-first-use in the academic community,37 but they remain rather isolated. Changes on this issue are extremely unlikely in the near-to-mid term unless other NWS make a major move.

During the 1995 NPT conference, France accepted the principle of future cuts as it accepted the declaration on "Principles and Objectives for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament." This commitment was confirmed in a P-5 statement during the 1997 Prepcomm to the 2000 NPT Conference. This statement, delivered by France on behalf of the five NWS, expressed, among other things, their determination to implement fully all the provisions of the NPT, "including those of Article VI."38 What remains to be seen is how this goal will be implemented, and to what extent the French government will fully agree on the scope of this commitment, which was emphasised by the July 1996 International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons.39

In the first months of 1996, President Chirac announced his intention to turn France into a "champion of disarmament." In a June 1996 speech, the President, however, made it, clear that nuclear disarmament was not his priority: "I do not think nevertheless that a French participation in international negotiations on the reduction of nuclear weapons is a topical subject. Our deterrence posture has been defined, in the new planning, at a strictly measured level to insure our security. (...) Today, other fields of disarmament should draw our attention."40 One can argue that some of the conditions set in 1983 by President Mitterrand for French participation in nuclear disarmament have not all yet been met, especially the "end of the race in antimissile, antisubmarine and antisatellite weapons." To a certain extent, France is waiting to see if the START Treaties are implemented before getting involved in any negotiation; it will probably not accept further major cuts until the two "big" NWS (the United States and Russia) have reached START II or even START III levels. This position does forbid participation in nuclear disarmament talks, but it leaves France (and the other two medium NWS) another 10 to 15 years before being directly involved. The January 1997 British government position41 is often quoted in Paris as the most appropriate.

On the issue of the complete elimination of nuclear weapons, most of the writing coming from the government or the strategic community insists on keeping nuclear weapons at least in the mid-term.42 There have been as well some important voices proposing further steps toward elimination.43 France seems, nevertheless, ready to accept, in the future, international negotiations on further limitations to nuclear forces. Yet, it is for the moment highly unlikely that France will support any initiative that would disable its ability to remain a nuclear power in the mid-to-long term. Therefore, a treaty on the elimination or prohibition of nuclear weapons would not get Paris' approval in the present situation. To summarise, for most of the French strategic community, both the desirability and the feasibility of elimination remain challenged. The vast majority of the members of the French strategic and political communities is, to this day, convinced that elimination is neither desirable nor feasible in the near-to-mid term. Elimination has, nevertheless, become a part of the French nuclear debate as a remote perspective. Moreover, if "disarmament" is understood as going down to very low levels, combined with confidence-building and transparency measures, a consensus is likely to be reached. Most analysts and decision-makers see "elimination" as such a remote objective that it will never be fulfilled, and only a minority favours a more active policy. There are very few factors that could have a decisive influence on French nuclear policy, besides the international security environment. This reflects the very cautious approach of the French strategic community to the issue of elimination; an approach that is reinforced by an (almost) all-party consensus and the lack of support from any significant share of the public. As already explained, the inner-rationale of elimination remains challenged in France.

It remains to be seen what is long-term in international relations and how far the nuclear asymptote will go. Most French analysts (including the author) still think that nuclear weapons have a role to play in international security as a stabilising and war-preventing factor and would not take the risk of going down to zero even in the long-term. A majority nevertheless agrees on the feasibility of many of the intermediate steps toward elimination in terms of downsizing, transparency, and confidence-building measures.


Contemporary France has inherited a special nuclear history. France's attitude toward nuclear issues is anchored in an old strategic culture, which explains to a large extent the enduring reliance on nuclear weapons. France is a second tier nuclear weapon state that joined the nuclear club in the second generation. Its nuclear strategy and rationale are accordingly less rooted in Cold War memories. The policy of reasonable sufficiency always followed by France, even if it was for obvious economic reasons, has preserved France from the Cold War era excess, far from the madness of the US-Soviet arms race. Combined with a nuclear posture aimed at preserving peace by deterring aggression against French vital interests, this strategy has built a special consensus in favour of nuclear deterrence. Nuclear weapons also provided France with a unique tool in inter-state relations with allowed Paris to develop an autonomous international policy backed by an independent security policy, or at least what was perceived as such.

The end of the Cold War, nevertheless, has led France to abandon its perfect nuclear ivory tower to enter a new world. In this world, France has had to enter a process of negotiated arms control and disarmament bargaining, which is challenging year after year the French rationale for keeping nuclear weapons. This major turn in French nuclear policy and diplomacy occurred over a very short period of time (1990-1996). In this process, France probably lost part of its exceptionality and realised suddenly that it had many things in common with the other nuclear weapon states: first of all a desire to remain nuclear. France is now fully involved in international nuclear debates and its special strategic past and culture probably have something to bring to these debates.

Hopefully, France will play its part in the emerging discussions on the future of nuclear weapons in international security. This debate should not, however, be reserved or limited to the official nuclear weapon, states. It should, on the contrary, involve all the major nations. This would be a first step in a joint effort to deemphasise the role of nuclear weapons and define the conditions for a less nuclear security environment. From different perspectives and without ignoring many points of disagreement, France and India probably have many issues to discuss to contribute to this effort and bring up new approaches and ideas.44 May the January 1998 visit of President Chirac in India have initiated a lasting dialogue.



1. This paper is the product of recent researches on French nuclear policy which have benefited from the support of the Henry L. Stimson Centre.

2. See Camille Grand, A French Nuclear Exception? Henry L. Stimson Centre Occasional Paper, no. 38, January 1998.

3. In 1939, France was among the leading nations in the nuclear field, thanks to Frederic Joliot's team. On these first years and on the commitment of French scientists in the US World War nuclear programme, see Bertrand Goldschmidt, Les pionniers de l'atome, (Paris: Stock, 1987).

4. See Charles Ailleret, "L'arme nucleaire, arme a born marche," Revue de defense nationale, December 1954.

5. See Pierre Gallois, "Les consequences strategiques et politiques des armes nouvelles," Politique etrangere, no. 11, 1958.

6. For a comprehensive overview of French deterrence during the Cold War, see David Yost, "France's Deterrent Posture and Security in Europe," Adelphi Papers, nos. 184 & 185, (London: IISS, Winter 1984/85).

7. See the classic book by General Pierre Gallois, Strategie de l'age nucleaire, (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1960). The author establishes a distinction between the superpowers, strategies primarily based on coercition (coercion) which is beyond the range of medium powers, and dissuasion (deterrence), which can be achieved with limited resources and nuclear means. According to Gallois, this second strategy allows medium powers to deter superpowers from using coercion on them.

8. For a comprehensive overview, refer to the chapters on the French nuclear strategy in Marcel Duval and Yves Le Baut, L'arme nucleaire francaise: Pourquoi et comment? (Paris: Kronos, 1991), pp. 21-139. Refer also to the writings of one of the "fathers" of the French nuclear doctrine, Lucien Poirier, Eassais de strategie theorique (Paris: FEDN, 1982) (reprinted in 1997 by Economica under the title Strategie theorique), Strategie theorique II (Paris: Economica, 1987) and Strategie theorique III (Paris: Economic, 1996).

9. This declaration, "I am deterrence," is typical of the French "nuclear monarchy," which gives a unique and unbalanced role to the President in security affairs. This was described by Samy Cohen in La Monarchie Nucleaire (Paris: Plon, 1986).

10. Lawrence Freedman, The Evolution of Nuclear Strategy, (London: Macmillan Press, 1987) (fifth edition), pp. 86-87.

11. See NRDC Nuclear Programme, Nuclear Data, 1997 ( and the tables reprinted in this paper.

12. See Lucien Poirier, "La crise des fondements," Strategique, n. 853, 1/1992, pp. 117-152, which was reprinted and completed in Lucien Poirier, La Crise Des Fondements (Paris: Economica, 1994).

13. To cite one major example: the Chirac Administration has decided to professionalise the French armed forces by 2002.

14. Livre blanc sur la defense 1994, (Paris: La Documentation Francaise, 1994), p. 17.

15. Ibid., p. 82 (official traslation).

16. See Ministere de la Defense, 1997-2015 Une Defense Nouvelle (Paris: SIRPA, 1996), pp. 18-19.

17. The official reasons for the resumption of nuclear testing for limited series of 6 tests were: (1) To test once the series version of the new TN-75 warhead then entering operational service; (2) To study the safety and reliability of ageing of nuclear weapons in order to secure of the long-term credibility of the French nuclear arsenal.

18. See Part II below.

19. Speech before the Ecole militaire, February 23, 1996.

20. For a reprint of the speech, see Lionel Jospin, "La politique de defense de la France," Defense Nationale, November 1997, pp. 3-14.

21. For a debate on concerted deterrence, see the dossier titled "La France, la dissuasion et l'Europe" in Relations Internationales et Strategiques, no. 21, Spring 1996. For various perspectives on European deterrent, see, for example: Frederic Bozo, "Une doctrine nucleaire europeenne: pour quoi faire et comment?, Politique Etrangere, no. 2/1992; Roberto Zadra, "European Integration and Nuclear Deterrence After the Cold War," Chaillot Paper, no. 5, Institute for Security Studies, WEU, November 1992; David Yost, "Europe and Nuclear Deterrence," Survival, Autumn 1993; M. De Decker, Le role et l'avenir des armes nucleaires, Document 1420 of WEU Assembly, May 19, 1994; Bruno Tertrais, "Quelle dimension europeenne pour la dissuassion nucleaire," Relations internationales et strategiques, no. 18, Summer 1995; and Pascal Boniface, "French Nuclear Strategy and European Deterrence: Les Rendez-vous Manques," Contemporary Security Policy, vol. 17, no. 2, August 1996.

22. Gaullist Foreign Affairs Minister (1993-1995) and Prime Minister (1995-1997).

23. See his speech titled "What Horizon for French Foreign Policy?" (January 30, 1995) as reprinted in Politique etrangere, no. 1/1995, pp. 245-259. He clarified this proposal in September 1995 in a speech titled "Nuclear Deterrence in the New International Context," also reprinted in Politique etrangere, no. 3/1995, pp. 743-751. For a debate on concerted deterrence, see also the dossier "La France, la dissuasion et l'Europe," Relations internationales et strategiques, n. 21, Spring 1996.

24. The resumption of nuclear testing was announced in June 1995, the first test took place September 5, 1995. The last of six occurred on January 27, 1996. On the history of French nuclear testing since the 1960s, refer to Yves Le Baut, ed., Le essais nucleaires francais (Brussels: Bruylant, 1996).

25. The full text can be found in Relations internationales et strategiques, no. 25, Spring 1997.

26. See Pascal Boniface and Francois Thual, "Refonder le consensus sur la dissuasion nucleaire," Le Monde, November 24-25, 1995.

27. September 28, 1983, speech before the UN General Assembly.

28. Plan issued, June 3, 1991. In this plan, France announced its intention to join the NPT.

29. Michael Duclos "La Conference de prorogation du TNP et les questions de desarmement nucleaire," Politique etrangere, no. 3/1995, pp. 723-729.

30. The dismantling of both systems were formally announced by President Chirac in a TV interview, February 22, 1996.

31. It was the first time France declared favouring "a treaty banning tests completely, on condition it was global and verifiable," See The Arms Control Reporter 1993, p. 608.B.268, July 1993.

32. See Therese Delpech, "France's Last Tests: A Catalyst for New Policies," The Nonproliferation Review, vol. 3, no. 1, Fall 1995, pp. 58-59.

33. See Ambassador Errera's speech before the Conference on Disarmament, August 10, 1995 (confirmed by a communique of the Presidence de la Republique, August 16, 1995). This move has been explained first of all by a desire to recapture the initiative after the announcement of the resumption of nuclear testing; it might also be true that French scientists feared that a low yield option would favour the United States, since the other NWS would be less able to conduct tests at an extremely low yield.

34. See the speech of Claude Cheysson (External Relations Minister) before the UN General Assembly, June 11, 1982; France "will not use nuclear arms against a state that does not have them and that has pledged not to seek them, except if an act of aggression is carried out in association or alliance with a nuclear-weapon State against France or against a state with which France has a security commitment."

35. Letter, dated April 6, 1995, to the UN Secretary General. The wording is now exactly the same for the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom.

36. For the full French declarations of 1968 on the NPT and on security assurances, refer to Jean Klein ed., Maitrise des armements et desarmement, (Paris: La Documentation Francaise, 1991), pp. 81-83.

37. See, for instance, Marisol Touraine, "Le fecteur nucleaire apres la guerr froide," Politique etrangere, 2/1992, pp. 395-405. The author suggests leaving to aggressive powers the responsibility of crossing the nuclear Rubicon.

38. PPNN Newsbrief, no. 38, 2nd Quarter, 1997, p. 3.

39. On the ICJ Advisory Opinion, see Die Friedens Warte, Band 71, Heft 3, 1996, including Camille Grand, "Legality of the Threat or Use of Nuclear Weapons--A French Perspective on the ICJ Advisory Opinion."

40. Jacques Chirac, "La politique de defence de la France," Defense nationale, August-September 1996, pp. 7-18, (speech before the IHEDN, June 8, 1996).

41. "A world in which American and Russian forces were no longer counted in thousands but in hundreds would be one where we were ready to join in multilateral negotiations on the global reduction of nuclear arms," UK Ambassador to the CD, January 21, 1997 (CD/PV.751) as quoted in Rebecca Johnson, "British Perspectives on the Future of Nuclear Weapons," Report No. XX, Henry L. Stimson Centre, December 1997.

42. Among other books, refer to: Therese Delpech, L'heritage nucleaire, (Brussels: Complex, 1997); Georges Le Guelie, Histoire de la menace nucleaire (Paris: Hachette, 1997); Pascal Boniface, Repenser la dissuasion (Editions de l'Aube, La Tour d'Aigues, 1997); and Paul-Ivan de Saint German et al., Demain, l'ombre portee de l'arme nucleaire...(Paris: CREST/Documentation francaise, 1996).

43. The major piece came from Michel Rocard (former Prime Minister and member of the Canberra Commission), who published the Canberra Report with a 70-page introduction Eliminer les armes nucleaires, (Odile Jacob, 1997). Another major book in the debate was published by two leading physicists: Georges Charpak and Richard Garwin, Feux follets et champignons nucleaires (Paris: Odile Jacob, 1997). The Pugwash Conference also published recently in French its 1993 report on elimination with two additional French papers: Conference Pugwash, Eliminer les armes? (Paris: Transition, 1997).

44. Camille Grand, "France and India: Towards Nuclear Realism," The Hindu, January 23, 1998.