The Future of the French Nuclear Posture
Pascal Boniface, Director, IRIS
For more than four decades after the end of World War II, nuclear weapons reigned as the supreme symbol of global power. Regardless of whether one likes or dislikes the concept of nuclear deterrence, it is impossible to dispute the central role it has played in international relations. The strategic revolution of 1989 has, however, changed things. Three factors, bearing on strategy, budgets, and legitimacy, have combined to alter the way in which nuclear weapons are perceived.
Let us start with the strategic factor. The collapse of the Soviet Empire and the inability of a "Southern threat" to stand as a credible replacement for the vanished "Eastern threat" have led many to downgrade the very idea of defence. The territories of the Western democracies are seen to be safely out of range of any conceivable menace. In this context it might well be asked whether nuclear weapons—the ultimate arms for protecting the national "sanctuary"—continue to possess any strategic relevance.
The second argument weighing against nuclear weapons is a budgetary one. The need to cut public deficits has a way of stimulating the salivary glands of Western finance ministers as they contemplate that heaping serving of fiscal pie represented by defence spending. Once defence budgets start to fall, increasing pressures are placed upon the share of overall spending allocated to nuclear instead of conventional assets. The former begin to appear not only strategically irrelevant but, even worse, downright expensive.
The third, and in the long term the most telling, argument is taking on the appearance of an unstoppable giant snowball, consuming everything in its downhill path: it is the growing unpopularity of nuclear weapons. Because of a fundamental confusion between deterrence and the use of nuclear weapons (abetted even by some who champion them), to say nothing of the inequitable character and exalted symbolic status of this form of weaponry, nuclear armaments have been attracting amazing amount of adverse attention, especially in the past few years.
The report of the Canberra Commission, the judgement of the International Court of Justice, the multiplication of disarmament resolutions in the UN and other fora, the proliferation of non-governmental organisations (NGO) militating against nuclear weapons, the growing anti-nuclearisation of publics in the West—all are combining to destabilise nuclear weaponry. It is much easier to mobilise public opinion against the vice of a possible use of nuclear arms than it is to convince anyone of the ironic virtues of the concept of deterrence.
Can the French Nuclear Consensus Be Maintained?
The nuclear weapon states are confronting a torrent of criticism, condemnation, and even ex-communication. All this weighs especially heavily on one of them, France. Not being a superpower, can it—will it— prevail against the tide? Does it not run the risk of becoming the feeblest link in the chain of nuclear-weapons states? After all, France is much weaker than the United States, much more sensitive to international censure than China, and much more prone to making symbolic political declarations (it keeps calling itself a world power) and gestures (nuclear testing) than is Great Britain. In a word, it invites attention.
Might it even be said, at the dawn of third millennium, that nuclear weapons are going to represent for France what Algeria did a half-century ago: a political asset that degrades into a heavy burden? Will it be in its interest to shed this burden, and abandon its nuclear arsenal? Can a country remain a nuclear power without at the same time being a superpower, and acting the part?
France had decided, not without first having reflected upon obvious risks and advantages, to answer these questions by maintaining its nuclear deterrent, but doing so at the lowest possible political and diplomatic cost. For, despite the rising chorus of nuclear opposition cited above, it should not be thought that everything has been working against France of late.
In fact, on the doctrinal level, France is decidedly less isolated than it was during the period stretching from the 1960s through the 1980s. In those decades, the United States appeared to be advocating nuclear-utilisation strategies, relying either upon graduated response or selective nuclear strikes. The Soviet Union, for its part, was preaching nuclear disarmament. France, championing a policy of strict deterrence, found itself uncomfortably sandwiched between these polar extremes. Surprisingly, both Washington and Moscow have, whether as a result of doctrinal or merely practical adaptation, abandoned their polar positions to join Paris in the middle, where they all find themselves in agreement over the virtues of nominal deterrence, or a deterrence predicated upon the notion of limited "sufficiency".
To add to their stupefaction, the French today find even the British moving over to their position! All this adds up, from the French perspective, to what has to be considered the least anticipated state of affairs, namely the demise of Paris' famed "splendid isolation" in the nuclear sphere. This divine surprise was in part the result of a mixed commission of officials from both the French and the British Ministers of Defence and Foreign Affairs. Until recently, the French have tended to regard Britan's nuclear arsenal as a component of the American one, with Washington suspected of having control, and a veto, over the British force.
Domestically, after a brisk and polemical debate on the 1995 nuclear tests, and notwithstanding the charges and counter charges fired at each other by the country's political parties, there has emerged a new consensus on nuclear questions in France. The consensus has formed around the three major parties, namely the Gaullist RPR (Rassemblement pour la Republique), the centre-right UDF (Union pour la Democratie Francaise), and the leftist PS (Parti Socialiste). The PS may have been completely opposed to the resumption of testing, but it did not lose its faith in deterrence; in fact, it saw the tests as being both unnecessary and, worse, likely to jeopardise prospects for extending the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons (NPT). To the PS, testing was perverse in that for the sake of minimal technological gain it courted the danger of calling into question the very legitimacy of nuclear weapons.
Absent from the consensus among the three major parties are the rightwing National Front, the ecologist Greens, and the Communists (PCF). We know that these absentees, who differ among themselves over why they reject the consensus, are hardly likely—at least, some of them—to be incapable of forming political alliances with parties more well-disposed than they to the notion of deterrence. If any proof is needed of this contention, one simply has to gaze upon the common draft agreed to by the PS and the Green in January 1997, calling upon them to act to reduce armaments, combat nuclear proliferation, and adopt the ultimate goal of eliminating all weapons of mass destruction. The retention of a posture of minimal deterrence—accompanied, as is now the case, by an active disarmament policy—has dissuaded neither the Communist nor the Greens from supporting and even participating in the left-leaning government that came to power as a result of the June 1997 legislative elections.
The nuclear consensus rests on the following four aspects: (1) the maintenance of a policy of deterrence; (2) the rejection of a posture of nuclear war-fighting; (3) the establishment of some tangible connection between France's nuclear arsenal and European defence; and (4) the creation of a linkage between deterrence and nuclear disarmament. French public opinion supports the consensus, as demonstrated by surveys revealing that 61 per cent of the French believe the country cannot safeguard its security without deterrence, against 28 per cent who hold the opposite view. Some 21 per cent of those surveyed believe the deterrent needs to be strengthened, while 32 per cent hold it important that it be continually modernised. For 39 per cent, France should adhere to the nuclear status quo versus 23 per cent who think it is time to make further cuts in the arsenal.
As can be appreciated, the French spurn thoughts of a post-nuclear world. For French officials, the ending of the Cold War has not translated into the ending of the need for deterrence. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, put it thus in an address to the Institute des Hautes Etudes de Defence Nationale, on September 8, 1998: "France's nuclear deterrent has today entered into a new era. The evolution of the strategic context permits a reduction in the number of weapons, as well as in the state of alert of the forces, but nuclear deterrence remains at the centre of our defence. France will continue, therefore, to have a nuclear presence, albeit one that has adapted, in terms both of its arsenal and its posture. For France, as well as for European security, nuclear weapons will continue to be necessary so long as a general and complete disarmament remains to be accomplished".
Deterrence versus War-Fighting: The Doctrinal Debate
The French may like deterrence, but what does the deterrent they prefer look like? During the Cold War, France—for reasons founded more upon necessity than virtue (since it could not keep pace in the American-Soviet arms race)—adopted a doctrine that excluded the recourse to nuclear weapons for war-fighting. The whole point of nuclear weapons was to prevent wars, not to win them.
Behind this simple principle, however, was hidden a more complex reality. Nuclear weapons have always been regarded with some ambivalence. In the United States, doctrinal concepts that had been elaborated prior to the atomic age were, in some cases, simply applied to the new weapons. But even in France there appeared a temptation on the part of some to minimise or deny the political role in favour of assigning to them strictly military functions. This temptation primarily revealed itself in respect of the country's short-range nuclear systems. What in the American context were called "tactical" nuclear weapons were, in France, baptised with the name "pre-strategic" forces, so as to indicate their desired linkage to strategic nuclear arsenals rather than to conventional theatre forces.
After the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and the Gulf War, a new means of ordaining nuclear weapons with a military function was found, outside of the pre-strategic category: miniaturised arms capable of delivering surgical strikes. These, in effect, consisted in systems able to limit damage almost entirely to the chosen target, without serious adverse consequences for the environment. Arguments made on their behalf rested upon the proposition that it was impossible to deter countries in the "South" with the same type of threat that had worked against the Soviet Union-i.e., of massive attacks upon cities. It was felt that by focussing nuclear strikes in such a way as to limit greatly their destructiveness, it would become much easier to contemplate their use; that being so, it would enhance deterrence credibility.
But this advantage also proved to be a disadvantage. For now, nuclear weapons were being, more than ever, endowed with a combat function, which contravened everything the French had ever taught themselves about these arms, namely that they existed only to deter. For this reason, it is preferable that precision munitions needed for surgical strikes should be conventional in nature; deterrence can only be truly effected with nuclear weapons. In fact, such weapons can deter only.
The return to a concept that is based purely on deterring is crucial for the future of France's nuclear arsenal. It deprives the enemies of their principal source of leverage. In adhering to a posture that contemplates the use of nuclear weapons, France would be playing into the hands of its anti-nuclear foes, by associating itself with the idea that such weapons can be used to fight, and not to preserve the peace. In so doing, France would have squandered any further prospect of maintaining the political legitimacy it has fought so hard to gain for its arsenal.
Only the extreme right National Front has argued in favour of nuclear use. Should the government lend credence to the possible employment of nuclear weapons, it will be guaranteed to raise the anti-nuclear temperature of the Communists and the ecologists. It will also surely give a fillip to anti-nuclear tendencies in public opinion (so far, as we have seen, confined to a minority). Abroad, and especially in Germany, it would serve to amplify regnant anti-nuclear sentiment among the public, at the very time that France has been working hard to appease German sensibilities by yielding to the long-standing demands of Bonn regarding the scrapping of short-range systems (the Hades) and the ratification of the NPT.
One can only take comfort in the fact that, so far, French decision makers have resisted the urge to give themselves greater room to manoeuvre by adopting a doctrine founded upon nuclear-weapons use. Doing so would, to be sure, allow the development of new kinds of nuclear weapons, but it would degrade the legitimacy currently enjoyed by deterrence.
The Europeanistion Question
The third element of the French consensus is the expectation that there should be a meaningful connection between the country's nuclear arsenal and European security and defence. General de Gaulle had early on invoked a European role for the country's strategic force, which he saw as replacing an American nuclear umbrella that must inevitably be withdrawn. Such a European role presupposed that Europe itself had evolved into a political entity. Thus, de Gaulle's vision really was a long-term one, with scant attention accorded to short-term, and specific, proposals.
We can distinguish between two profoundly different periods in which the question of a European role for France's deterrent was raised. Prior to 1992, and notwithstanding the hypothetical support of de Gaulle for such a role, French decision makers categorically rejected the notion that the country's nuclear weapons might somehow be placed at the service of European defence. Occassionally during this period, trial balloons went aloft with a Europeanised message, but these were quickly shot down, as being detrimental to the strategic interests of France.
Thus, the 1972 Livre blanc sur la defence nationale, (White Paper on National Defence) in rejecting the doctrine of flexible response, could also claim that Europe did not automatically benefit from America's nuclear umbrella. To the drafters of the White Paper, it was simply contrary to the natural order of things of deterrence to be extended "because nuclear deterrence is exclusively national". For the time being, nuclear risks cannot be shared.
Thus, it was held to be logically absurd to try to extend France's deterrent to its European neighbours. How credible could such an "offer" be, when Paris denied that even the mighty American nuclear deterrent could be extended to anyone? There was a slight concession made in the direction of the Europeans, the White Paper indicating that although deterrence was reserved for the protection of "vital interests," the latter category was somewhat vague. Since a potential adversary was expected to have just as much difficulty as anyone else in figuring out the precise contours of such interests, it was thought uncertainty would work to reinforce deterrence. From this it followed that "Western Europe cannot but benefit directly from France's strategy, constituting as it does a stable and decisive element of European security."
For nearly two decades, not much would change in French deterrent thinking. A turning point came, however, in mid-January 1992, when President Francois Mitterrand asked at a European summit whether it was possible to conceive of a European nuclear doctrine. By his choice of words, the president indicated that if a common security policy was actually going to be on the cards for Europe, then France would be prepared to open the question of extending nuclear deterrence. Nor was such a hint completely unexpected given the signing, just a few weeks previously, of the Treaty of Maastricht, by which the members of the European Community (soon to become Union) committed themselves to achieving a common foreign and security policy. Nevertheless, Mitterrand had made no commitments.
Alain Juppe, at the time Minister of foreign affairs, rekindled the discussion about extending France's deterrent in an address delivered in January 1995, at an event marking the twentieth anniversary of his department's Centre for analysis and forecasting. "After the development of a common doctrine on the part of France and the United Kingdom," he wondered "should our generation shrink from envisioning, not a shared deterrent, but at least a deterrent co-ordinated with our principal partners? I ask the question: with the adoption of monetary union and the forging of a new Franco-German understanding, can it really be imagined that France's perception of its own 'vital interests' will remain unchanged?"
Juppe's hints were not received with much enthusiasm by the country's European partners. It must be stressed that the project known as "dissuasion concert," or co-ordinated deterrence, was intended to link France's nuclear arsenal to European security. But what a time to suggest it, in the same year that France resumed nuclear testing! To many of France's neighbours, Juppe's initiative was taken as a thinly disguised, and clumsy, attempt to get them to endorse the testing.
France was slow to recognise that its perception of nuclear realities was not quite the same as that elsewhere in the old continent. While it regards deterrence as a mechanism par excellence for assuring independence and security, others in Europe see it as a nuisance and, especially in Germany (concerned as it is about proliferation and Russia), a genuine menace, one that in the bargain serves to ratify the country's subordinate status. These mutual misperceptions are and remain regrettable, given that there can never be a true Europe of defence, in a world that will remain nuclearised, so long as European defence continues to lack a nuclear element.
How, then, to cut the Gordian knot? How to overcome European resistance stemming both from structural reasons—the non-nuclear European states' rejection of their inequality of status vis-à-vis France and Britain—and from an error of timing that resulted in what, to them, looked to be a crude attempt to smuggle support for "European" nuclear testing through the back door of dissuasion concertees? France needs to avoid the appearance of pressurising its European partners. What happened in the summer of 1995 cannot be allowed to recur, and for the moment the best France can do is to simply make known its willingness to cooperate on the issue of a European deterrent.
And it is a Europeanised deterrent that must be the keystone in the arch of the mooted Europe of defence. My choice of architectural metaphor suggests that the essential nuclear component of European defence cannot be put into place until the final stages of construction. Just as a Europe of defence cannot be built in the absence of European political unity, so must the elaboration of a European deterrent be dependent upon the prior existence of a European defence entity. Any attempt to reverse the timing is doomed to failure, and worse, is likely also to be counter- productive to the enhancement of European integration, as well as of deterrence credibility.
Deterrence and Disarmament
The final element of the contemporary French consensus is the conviction that there need be no contradiction between nuclear disarmament and nuclear deterrence. This is a remarkable change from France's previous position. At the start of the 1960s, de Gaulle showed himself to be fiercely opposed to the arms control initiatives launched by Washington and Moscow. Indeed, "arms control" was widely regarded in France as a code-word for superpower condominium. Thus, de Gaulle lashed out publicly and frequently against what he took to be a policy that, under the cloak of a general interest in halting the arms race, was really intended to promote the specific interests of the superpowers, and in particular safeguarding their nuclear duopoly. But France created for itself a major difficulty: being willing neither to launch nor participate in any arms-control initiatives, it stood out as the principal spoiler in the game of disarmament.
The years 1978 to 1988 were consecrated by the United Nations as the disarmament decade. President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, determined to buff up the country's image, committed France fully to the exercise. One would have thought that Giscard's successor, Francois Mitterrand, would have continued along the same path. After all, Mitterrand had been a keen critic of de Gaulle both because of the latter's stance on arms control and because of the manner in which he chose to build the force de frappe. And though Mitterrand finally would rally behind deterrence in 1978, he did remain a firm partisan of disarmament.
But when we came to power, it was in the midst of the euro-missile crisis. France stood squarely beside the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) on the latter's two-track decision. By so doing, it came once more to be branded an enemy of disarmament, all the more so, as the Soviet Union announced it was prepared to negotiate away its SS-20s on the condition that French and British missiles were included in the alliances' intermediate-range category; this, Paris and London could not accept.
In his "letter a tous les francais", which served as his platform for the 1988 presidential election, Mitterrand noted that security and disarmament were "two sides of the same coin." A few years later, with the disappearance of the Soviet threat, France retook the initiative in matters of disarmament. On June 3, 1991, Mitterrand presented the UN with an arms control and disarmament plan calling for action on three levels: weapons categories, regional, and global. Within little more than a year, on August 3, 1992, France would formally adhere to the NPT and subsequently would play an active part in the negotiations leading to the 1995 review conference of that treaty.
By 1995, France had taken significant steps in the direction of nuclear disarmament. It had retired from service its AN-52 gravity bombs; dismantled its Pluton short-range missiles; mothballed the latter's scheduled replacement, the Hades; and reduced the state of alert of its strategic forces. Overall, France had cut its warheads by 15 per cent. But these unilateral measures gave the appearance of being motivated more for budgetary than for arms control reasons.
Announcing the end of the nuclear tests, President Jacques Chirac declared that a new chapter was beginning, one in which France would work actively for global disarmament. Prior to heading off on an Asian trip, the president went so far as to state that France was henceforth going to be the champion of nuclear disarmament. Indeed, it became the first nuclear state to accept the zero option in the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. It also announced the definite closure of its experimentation site at Mururoa. It signed the Treaty of Rarotonga, which called for the denuclearisation of the South Pacific-something it had tenaciously resisted doing for a decade. Also it signed the Treaty of Pelindaba, promising a similar status for Africa. It is participating actively in cut-off negotiations on fissile materials.
In and of itself, nuclear disarmament is not incompatible with deterrence. One must not confuse disarmament, that is, the reduction in the number arms that permits the adoption of more reasonable force postures, with denuclearisation, which entails the complete elimination of this category of weaponry. The latter, seemingly so well-intentioned, could turn out to be very dangerous, in that it would render war once more possible in settings where it had previously become unimaginable. In reality, arms racing and denuclearisation are two sides of the same coin—the coin of contemplated war, of non-deterrence.
France has considerably reduced its nuclear arsenal since the beginning of the 1990s. The determining element was almost certainly budgetary restrictions, even if this is not often mentioned publicly. From 1990 to 1997, spending, on nuclear weapons was cut in half from 38.8 billion francs to 16 million. As a result, it was impossible to retain all the projected programmes and to upgrade all the components. In the coming years, the French nuclear arsenal will be considerably modified, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The upgrading of certain components will be accompanied by a reduction in their numbers.
The most dramatic change in French nuclear forces is the elimination of the ground-based missile portion of the triad. President Chirac announced the decision in 1995 in connection with the resumption of nuclear testing. In June he said, "my objective is to obtain increased security for France at a minimum cost. With this in mind, I asked the government to review the conditions for closing the Plateau d'Albion as rapidly as possible. I am not certain that this site continues to serve any useful purpose." On February 22, 1996, President Chirac confirmed that "We are going to close the Plateau d'Albion. Our two submarine and airborne components are now sufficient to guarantee our security."
By closing down the Plateau d'Albion, President Chirac reversed the decision of his predecessor, when he declared in a special speech on dissuasion in May 5, 1994, that "The decision taken by the Defence Council and later by the Council of Ministers, guarantees that the 18 missiles of the Plateau will be retained until 2005, when they will be replaced by the upgraded version of the M4 missile, the M45, while awaiting the development of the terrestrial version of the M5 missile."
The Plateau d'Albion is not the only nuclear capability sacrificed in the name of budget cuts and political imperatives. France continues to undergo "nuclear downsizing". Like the wave of measures passed in 1992, those announced by Jacques Chirac were motivated by budgetary and diplomatic factors. In 1992, President Mitterrand placed the Hades missiles in storage rather than bring them into service. In 1996, Jacques Chirac went a step further by deciding to dismantle them. Never deployed, they cost 10.6 billion francs and poisoned Franco-German relations.
In addition to these reductions, the decision to close the nuclear test centre will be almost impossible to reverse politically and diplomatically. The plants at Pierrelatte and Marcoule, which manufacture fissile material for nuclear weapons will also close by 2002. This decision is in line with the prospect of a fissile material production cut-off treaty, planned as part of the commitment made by the nuclear powers during the conference in 1995 to extend the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Cut-off of fissile material production is not a major concern for France, which has a stockpile of fissile material to last for the next 50 years. Furthermore, fissile material recovered from dismantled weapons would lead to increases in the stockpile.
Of the five nuclear submarines currently in the strategic submarine force (FOST), four are always operational and two of which are at sea. Each submarine has 16 M4 missiles and each missile carries six nuclear weapons, out of a total of 384 nuclear weapons.
The new strategic submarine programme originally called for six submarines, but was reduced to three for budgetary reasons. More recently President Chirac confirmed that the SNLE-NG programme would produce four submarines. By not constructing the fourth SNLE, the country would have saved 13 billion francs, but it would have had a drawback in terms of deployment. With four SNLEs, three can be operational at any given time. The SNLE-NG program is now estimated to cost 88.4 billion francs for four submarines. The average cost per submarine has increased from 10 billion francs in 1986 to 12.5 billion.
"Le Triomphant," the first of the new series of submarines, entered into service in 1996. The second, "Le Temeraire," is scheduled to join the fleet in 1999, and the third "Le Vigilant," is projected for 2002. The final submarine in the series is scheduled to become operational in 2007.
The upgraded M45 missile will equip the first three SNLE-NGs when they become operational. The fourth will receive a new model missile, the M51. Relative to the M4 missile, the M45 carries more TN75 nuclear warheads which are also more stealthy than the TN70 and TN71 carried by the M4s. The TN75 warheads, also have an extremely sophisticated penetration assistance system. The range of the M45 missile is greater than 4,000 km. The delivery for the missile sets were 1996, 1999 and 2000, replacing the M4s which have been in use since 1965, 1987 and 1989, respectively.
The M45 missile will be replaced by the M51 and not the M5 missile as was initially planned. The M51 missiles have a range of around 6,000 km and cost 32.7 billion francs to develop rather than 42 billion for the M5. This saving also comes at the cost of a reduced range. The M5 was to be able to carry a 1,400 kg payload to a range of 6,000 km or a 200 kg as far as 14,000 km, in the latter case with one or two rather than six nuclear warheads. With ranges over 10,000 km, French SNLEs would have a true multidirectional capacity from the Bay of Biscay. Thus there would be no need to patrol north of a line between Scotland and Iceland where submarines detect.
The abbreviated tests in 1995 were not sufficient to fine-tune the T-N100 warhead, as planned in 1994. The M51 should receive a new nuclear warhead, for the moment called TNN. The total ban on nuclear testing suggests that it will probably have the characteristics of TN 75, but possibly, with a new penetration system.
Although the strategic submarine force represents four-fifth of the French nuclear arsenal, an airborne component will remain. This consists of three squadrons of Mirage 2000 N, equipped with ASMP missiles. The aircraft carriers will also have two fleets of Super Etendards, equipped with ASMPs. This missile will be replaced after 2008 by a missile called ASMP 1 (or improved ASMP) which will have a range of 100 km at low altitude or 500 km at high altitude, compared to 80 and 300 respectively for the ASMP. Initially it will be adapted to the Mirage 2000 and then to the Rafale if necessary. The performance gain is, therefore, minimal especially when compared with what the ASLP missile could have achieved. This programme which would have cost 15 million francs and for which joint manufacturing with the British was envisaged, was abandoned for budgetary reasons.
Conclusion: The Future of France's Deterrent
Is there any need for France to continue possessing nuclear weapons? During the Cold War, nuclear deterrence was inextricably linked with the Soviet threat. That threat was not simply felt as a military danger, though that it surely was. Losing the Cold War would have implied much more than a temporary, if dramatic, reversal in strategic fortune, it would have resulted in radical societal change, with all that this would mean for the way of life in the West. Since the dissolution of the Iron Curtain, and regardless of emerging risks and threats, there has been nothing comparable, whether in terms of stakes involved or of power deployed. As nuclear deterrence was synonymous with the Cold War, can it possibly survive the latter's ending? Have not the Gulf War and the fighting in the former Yugoslavia demonstrated just how irrelevant nuclear weapons have become for contemporary conflict?
It is obvious that nuclear weapons no longer occupy the central place they had during the east-west struggle. Yet it would be a gross error in judgement to imagine that nuclear weapons have lost all utility. Deterrence never was, and cannot ever be, construed as an appropriate response to every military threat. It has only one, albeit essential, function: to protect France's territory and its vital interests. Neither French territory nor French vital interests have been at stake in the Gulf or in the former Yugoslavia.
No matter what the international context may be, nuclear deterrence can possess no credibility if it is conceived for what the military experts call "out-of-area" theatres. But it does play an essential role in providing defence, in the narrowest sense, to the country. And so long as there exists a need to defend French territory and vital interests, nuclear deterrence will remain the best protector. It is the ultima ratio of France's defence.
However unpopular they may be becoming elsewhere in the world, nuclear weapons remain necessary for the defence of France and of Europe. They have become unpopular largely because everyone speaks too little of deterrence and too much of use. In reality, deterrence strategy has never been understood. Moreover, there has been and continues to exist a curious alliance between committed nuclearists, who would like to imagine that nuclear weapons can do anything that conventional weapons might be asked to accomplish (and who in fact see no essential difference between the two categories of weaponry), and the anti-nuclearists. Both, the former exultantly, the latter fearfully, think only of nuclear, and never of nuclear deterrence.
For France, there is a way to arrest the delegitimisation of nuclear weaponry while maintaining the country's nuclear posture. It resides in putting the emphasis on deterrence to the detriment of use. If one wants deterrence to remain legitimate, it is necessary that nuclear weapons remain political weapons only; that means privileging their political credibility and not their military credibility.
Possession of a nuclear arsenal can no longer be justifiable, in the eyes of others, by appeals to the "grandeur" of France or the need to safeguard the country's rank in the international hierarchy. Such appeals are guaranteed to generate scorn and rejection. Only the appeal to security can have any meaning, provided it is complemented by an attitude of co-operation and embedded in the discourse of a general interest. Europe's situation is not sufficiently stable to allow countries who have built their security upon deterrence to renounce it. These countries threaten no one.
For France, then, the raison d'etre of nuclear weapons is to ward off any attack on our sanctuary and our vital interests. The fact that nuclear weapons have not found employment in external threats can only redound to their benefit, and can only enhance their legitimacy.