By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, October 30, 2008
PARIS, Oct. 29 -- The French government decided Wednesday to increase military spending by an average of $1.8 billion a year as part of an effort to field a trimmer but better-equipped army to safeguard France's role in world affairs.
The five-year program, which has been under study since President Nicolas Sarkozy took power in May 2007, was maintained despite a financial crisis that has undermined the already sluggish French economy and led to predictions of budget cutbacks across the government. Defense Minister Hervé Morin said the decision illustrated Sarkozy's determination, even amid financial turmoil, to conduct activist policies in Afghanistan, Africa and other trouble spots around the globe.
Sarkozy proposed Wednesday, for instance, that European countries, including France, dispatch a military force to Congo to work alongside U.N. peacekeepers trying to end the spiraling conflict there.
"In spite of the crisis, we will not touch defense funds," Morin said in an interview with the Figaro newspaper. "France wants to maintain a strong foreign policy. For its voice to be heard, it must be a credible military power."
The defense planning law, which the government's parliamentary majority is likely to pass unaltered, provided for $230 billion through 2014. It listed as priority expenditures the launching of reconnaissance satellites, increasing by 700 the number of intelligence agents and buying antimissile alert systems. In deference to the economic slowdown, however, it mandated holding firm on expenditures for the first three years and then piling the increases into the last two years.
Morin acknowledged at a news conference that the delay raised the risk that future governments could cut back on the spending plans in a financial pinch. But he said the overall goals would be maintained, and, if a crisis arose, France's military leadership would understand the need to run out the expenditures over a few more years.
Intelligence gathering has been identified as a major gap among the 3,000-member French military contingent in Afghanistan. Soon after taking office, Sarkozy increased its number and expanded its mission to include front-line patrols alongside U.S. and other NATO troops in the International Security and Assistance Force.
The decision was bitterly criticized after 10 French soldiers were killed and 21 wounded Aug. 18 in an ambush near Kabul, the Afghan capital. French opinion polls consistently have shown that a majority of those queried oppose the deployment, and some critics accused the government of providing inadequate equipment to the ambushed troops. As a result, Sarkozy's government has been eager to be seen supporting the command and making sure the military has what it needs.
The French armed forces, numbering 259,000 regulars and 419,000 reserves, are the largest in Europe. But they rank 14th in the world, reflecting France's relative decline as a military power over the last half a century. Sarkozy has vowed to reverse the trend and keep the country in the club of nuclear powers with the ability to intervene militarily around the world.
Morin said the expenditures also will permit France's defense industries to remain competitive. "France is among the three or four biggest countries when it comes to the arms industry," he said. "I did everything so that we can maintain those industrial icons and the 350,000 jobs they generate in France."