By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, May 25, 2008
PARIS -- In the past few months, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced the first French military base in the Middle East, christened his country's costliest nuclear submarine and advocated returning troops to NATO command.
Sarkozy's efforts to project the image of a militarily powerful France reasserting itself on the global security stage mask a behind-the-scenes struggle over withering defense budgets that threaten to reduce combat-ready forces by as much as 40 percent, sideline major new weapons programs and eliminate bases in Africa.
Philippe Moreau Defarges, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations, described Sarkozy's public pronouncements as "mostly an impression, because French spending in terms of defense is going to shrink."
That has prompted the French commander in chief to propose some of the most dramatic changes in his country's military policies in decades.
France and Britain are embarking on a once-unthinkable partnership building airplanes, helicopters and weaponry together. They flirted this year with jointly building an aircraft carrier.
After decades of a go-it-alone military strategy, France has become one of Europe's greatest advocates of an emerging European Union defense force and is considering allowing French forces back into the NATO command structure after a 43-year absence.
Five years after France became one of Washington's most vociferous opponents of the war in Iraq, Sarkozy is the only European leader who answered recent pleas from the United States and NATO to send more troops to Afghanistan.
In July, France takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union, giving Sarkozy a powerful platform from which to promote his military plans Europe-wide at a time when the United States is eager for Europe to exert more military muscle.
"He wants to reduce the number of military bases in Africa, he wants to send fewer troops abroad, and his goal is to integrate French troops more efficiently to the European forces," said Fabio Liberti, a European Union specialist at the Paris Institute of International Research and Strategies. "This attitude of acknowledging that we need our European partners and that France is deciding to stop acting on its own is seen positively by Washington."
Sarkozy also has agreed to support British Prime Minister Gordon Brown's pet project of creating a rapid-reaction reserve force of police, judges, lawyers, engineers and doctors to help stabilize countries trying to recover from conflict.
Sarkozy sees a new European defense force as a partial answer to individual countries' declining budgets and increasing weapons costs. But those same factors, along with the usual Euro-bickering, have conspired to largely keep the European force from getting off the ground.
French Defense Minister Hervé Morin told Parliament last month that the armed forces face drastic troop cutbacks in the coming years. The number of combat-ready troops may fall by as much as 40 percent, from a current level of 50,000 to as low as 30,000.
"Who thinks in 15 or 20 years to come -- with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the disappearance of the Warsaw Pact and the enlargement of the European Union -- that we will need 50,000 men in Central Europe?" Morin asked a parliamentary committee. "If France is still capable of sending 30,000 or 40,000 men into theater around the Mediterranean, looking at the big picture, that would hardly turn France into a second-class military power."
Last week, Morin told the French news media that the navy probably will be unable to afford its requested new aircraft carrier, which has a price tag of $5.5 billion.
Sarkozy's focus on international security issues also figures in his efforts to redeem his tarnished image at home a year after taking office as the president who would reform France's bureaucracies and labor laws.
His approval ratings have plunged, as much from the failures of his reform promises as from his highly visible personal life: vacations on friends' yachts and at their luxury homes, the divorce from his second wife and nearly immediate marriage to pop singer Carla Bruni, and a number of unpresidential temper tantrums.
But Bruni has emerged as a major political as well as personal asset for Sarkozy. On the couple's recent state visit to London, she charmed British officials and journalists, drawing comparisons with Jacqueline Kennedy.
"President Sarkozy wants to be on all fronts on many subjects," analyst Liberti said. "But E.U. institutions are heavy, and it takes time to make reforms in such a context. I think he will be a hyperactive president with few results."
Researcher Corinne Gavard contributed to this report.