By Molly Moore
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
PARIS, June 17 -- President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday announced a major new defense policy that would integrate French troops into the command structure of the NATO alliance for the first time in more than four decades.
Sarkozy also proposed a leaner military with fewer troops and bases; a slowdown in the deployment of expensive aircraft and warships; and more money for intelligence-gathering satellites and other equipment needed for home-territory fights against terrorism, cybercrime and drug trafficking.
The new military doctrine, the first major reassessment of the country's defense policies in 14 years, reflects the realities of a shrinking military budget and changing security threats. It also underscores Sarkozy's efforts to mend rifts with the United States and his European neighbors.
"We can renew our relations with NATO without fearing for our independence and without the risk of being unwillingly dragged into a war," Sarkozy told senior government and military officials in a speech Tuesday. He said France would retain full control of its nuclear arsenal and would not allow its troops to be placed permanently under foreign command.
Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, NATO's secretary general, welcomed Sarkozy's announcement, according to an alliance spokesman.
In 1966, under President Charles de Gaulle, France withdrew its troops from NATO's integrated command structure in defiance of the United States. France continued to provide troops for NATO operations, but insisted they remain under French command.
France's relationship with the United States reached new lows with its opposition to President Bush's decision to launch a war against Iraq.
But Sarkozy, the most pro-American French president in years, has worked hard to patch up transatlantic animosities, visiting the United States and last week hosting Bush and first lady Laura Bush in Paris.
The proposed changes in French military policies, which must be approved by Parliament, parallel strategic shifts now being implemented by nearly all Western powers, including the United States.
"Today, the most immediate threat is that of a terrorist attack," Sarkozy said Tuesday. "The threat is there, it is real and we know that it can tomorrow take on a new form, even more serious with nuclear, chemical and biological means."
French officials have frequently said they fear France could suffer the kinds of mass terrorist attacks that have hit the United States, Britain and Spain in recent years. France's most iconic symbol, the Eiffel Tower -- considered a potential target -- is shut down several times a year because of bomb scares or other threats.
Even France's famed Foreign Legion began shifting its focus several years ago, conducting more anti-terrorism operations in France and fewer missions abroad.
Sarkozy said military budgets in the coming years will place more emphasis on developing better satellite systems for intelligence monitoring, and pilotless drones for surveillance and military operations. Military budgets will also focus on improving resources for fighting Internet crime.
At the same time, Sarkozy said he plans to divert money from the development and deployment of hugely expensive fighter aircraft and a new aircraft carrier, weapons systems geared more to Cold War-era combat than present-day conflicts against terrorists.
The changes, recommended by a committee of 35 military and security specialists, include cutting 54,000 military and civilian personnel, about 15 percent of the French defense services.
The number of troops that could be deployed for foreign operations would be reduced from 50,000 to 30,000. France currently has deployed about 10,000 troops to operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Lebanon, Chad and the Ivory Coast.
"The threats have changed in nature, they are diverse and shifting," Sarkozy said. "From now on, France's defense is as much at stake within France as thousands of kilometers away."