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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 29, August - September 1998

Vers Une Défense Nouvelle:
Defence Policy Planning and Review in France
By Shaun Gregory

The announcement of a defence shake-up in France on 8 July (1), the same day as the British Strategic Defense Review was published, raises the issue of how other States plan and review their defence. The French changes were neither strategic nor the product of a genuine review and to understand them it is necessary to relate them to the wider process of defence policy adaptation since the end of the Cold War. This paper therefore briefly examines the defence planning and review process in France from 1989, sets in context and explains the 8 July restructuring, and offers some thoughts about the strengths and weaknesses of the French system.

As in other Western States defence policy in France has been under post-Cold War review for almost a decade. In that time France has seen one President go and another arrive in 1995, three changes of government (1993, 1995, 1997), and two periods of political "cohabitation" (2) (1993-1995 and 1997 to date). Against this background French defence policy has been articulated by a defence white paper, the 1994 Livre Blanc sur la Défense (the first for 22 years); four framework military planning laws, Loi de Programmation Militaire (1990-1993, 1992-1994, 1995-2000 and 1997-2002); nine annual defence budgets, Projet de Budget du Ministère de la Défense; and a major Presidential initiative Une Défense Nouvelle 1997-2015. Understanding the defence policy planning and review process in France requires understanding the role of each of these elements, their relationship to each other, and their relationship to the political background against which they were conducted.

Before this can be done, however, it is worthwhile making two general observations. Firstly, French defence policy has since the 1980s, and arguably a decade earlier, been the subject of a broad, if at times imprecise, political and public consensus. As a result while policy detail is extensively and often sharply debated the underlying framework and consensual elements of defence policy are largely not (3). This defence "consensus" flows from structural elements such as French geography and from French history - particularly the French Revolution and its aftermath which forged a close bond between the army and people, the French Empire which 'globalised' French interests, and the pattern of invasion between 1814 and 1940 which seared a highly 'realist' and State-centred concept of defence into the national strategic culture. It flows also from the decisive intervention of General Charles de Gaulle who through the constitution of the Fifth Republic and through the force of his ideas established from the late 1950s a "Gaullist" framework of thinking about defence around which the "consensus" has subsequently accreted.

The "consensus" however has proved to be a double-edged sword, lending France a certain stability and predictability in long-term defence policy-making but imposing on France a particular rigidity in seeking creative responses to a changing context. One of the core dynamics of the post-Cold War evolution of French defence policy has been the tensions inherent in adapting the Gaullist framework to successive pressures, most importantly those from geostrategic change, budgetary constraint, Europeanisation, and the wider demands of multilateralism. France has been unwilling to abandon Gaullist ideas but at the same time has come increasingly to recognise their declining relevance in the new era. One can thus observe the adherence to Gaullism in contemporary defence policy - for example in the maintenance of an independent nuclear deterrent, non-integration with and distance from NATO, a global military role commensurate with French rang and grandeur, and near self-sufficiency in arms procurement (4) - and simultaneously find many senior French analysts observing that "most of the ... defense guidelines laid out by General Charles de Gaulle ... are simply no longer relevant" (5).

Secondly, France has eschewed budget-led reform and chosen not to make the kind of "peace dividend" cuts evident elsewhere amongst NATO member States. The French defence budget has fallen only relatively over the past decade or so slipping from 3.1% of GDP in 1986 to 2.4% in 1996 (6). In an expanding economy French defence spending (volume des dépenses de défense) actually increased in real terms between 1985 and 1995 by 2% while over the same period it fell by 17% in the United States, 20% in Britain, and 21% in Germany (7).

Both these strands - the rigidity of the "consensus" and the relative budgetary stability - have been important elements informing the review process which unfolded from 1989. This process began with reforms led by the Defence Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement under the Armées 2000/ORION (8) programmes. Armées 2000/ORION was essentially an initiative to restructure the armed forces to simplify territorial defence, enhance the French capacity to co-operate with European allies (notably Germany), and improve inter-service operational capability. To implement the changes the government enacted a new Loi de Programmation Militaire for 1990-1993 to supercede that of 1987-1991 (9), which curbed the growth of defence spending but maintained both the range and balance of procurement programmes.

Chevènement's changes were quickly overtaken by events (the end of the Cold War, the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union) which prompted a wide-ranging review of policy both within the government and in the wider defence community. The fruits of this strategic review became public through a new Loi de Programmation Militaire which provided a detailed prescription for defence spending between 1992 and 1994 and set a broader framework of spending through to 1997 (10). The 1992-1994 Loi contained most of the key elements of French post-Cold War defence policy and is arguably the seminal defence document of the new era. Based on a changed assessment of the geostrategic context and on threat perception orientated increasingly towards "southern" issues (proliferation, regional instability, low-intensity conflict, etc) it slowed down the French nuclear modernisation programme, and boosted spending on intelligence-gathering assets, and on supporting inter-service and multinational military operations (11). Within the framework established by the new Loi the defence reforms begun by Chevènement were also taken forward, most notably through the Optimar 95 project which restructured the French Navy, shifted principal naval assets to the Mediterranean base at Toulon, and orientated naval power increasingly towards projection into the developing world (12).

The election of an opposition government in the spring of 1993 while President Mitterrand still had two years of office to run took France into its second period of political "cohabitation" of the Fifth Republic. Anxious to put its stamp on defence policy but tempered by the constitutional dominance of the President in defence and foreign policy matters the new government of Balladur worked for a year to consolidate defence policy. In March 1994 the new government plublised the second Livre Blanc sur la Défense of the Fifth Republic (13). The Livre Blanc is a detailed and extensive document which describes at length the French view of the new geostrategic context and the threats therein, the objectives of French defence policy, French defence resources, and the relationship between defence and society. It is addressed primarily to the French people (14) and is a descriptive rather than prescriptive document. Its value is that it identifies the key issues of central and medium-term interest to France and describes how French policy is likely to evolve (through to 2010). It is important also because it describes the consensus elements of defence policy, self-evidently so since its publication at a time of "cohabitation" meant it had to have cross-party political support.

Its limitations, however, are stark: it sets no budget or budgetary framework and as a consensus document it avoided almost all of the hard questions (particularly those relating to Europe) and areas of dispute between political left and right (15). In substance it was consistent with the themes and ideas implicit in the 1992 Loi and offered only the most general framework for the future. In France Livre Blanc are far from from crucial to either defence policy planning or implementation, a point underlined by the fact that only two have appeared in forty years and neither has been a strategically important document. An informed view in France is that the 1994 Livre Blanc appeared when it did not because it was a necessary part of the defence policy-making process but rather because the Prime Minister Eduoard Balladur, with presidential ambitions of his own for 1995, wanted to put his name to a major national document so clearly within the presidential purview to enhance his own credentials (16).

To take forward the themes of the Livre Blanc the government enacted a new Loi de Programmation Militaire for the period 1995-2000. This maintained cross-party fidelity to the major French projects of the 1990s - the Rafale fighter, Triomphant-class submarines and M-5 missiles, Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier, LeClerc tank, Tigre helicopter, and Helios intelligence satellite - and continued the programme emphasis and balance established by the 1992 Loi (17).

In 1995 major political change occurred when fourteen years of socialist rule came to an end with the Presidential victory of centre-right RPR leader Jacques Chirac. With President and government once more of the same political party Chirac and his defence minister Charles Millon established a Strategic Committee in July 1995 to undertake a second major review of defence policy. The review was completed and its findings made public in February 1996 when Jacques Chirac unveiled Une Défense Nouvelle 1997-2015, which was for some the most radical shake-up of defence policy since de Gaulle (18). The package included the phased ending of conscription by 2002, ending more than 200 years of policy continuity, and a far-reaching restructuring and down-sizing of the French armed forces (19).

The elements of the latter included the scrapping of French SRBMs and IRBMs to leave just a nuclear diad based on Triomphant submarines and ASMP stand-off missiles and deep cuts in force levels from 577,000 to 434,000 (including particularly heavy cuts in the army from 270,000 to 170,000). It included also the reorganisation of the armed forces around a "new model army" centred on four missions: dissuasion based on the nuclear deterrent; prevention, that is the avoidance and defusing of threats to national interests through intelligence and force prepositioning; power projection, the capacity to project forces of up to 50-60,000 personnel into theatres around the world for purposes from Gulf War-type scenarios to peacekeeping and humanitarian intervention; and, protection, that is the defence of France against terrorism, drugs, and so forth (20).

To accompany Une Défense Nouvelle the government published a new Loi de Programmation Militaire for 1997-2002 (21) which proposed genuine cuts (to reflect the down-sizing) but which left intact the major projects dominant since the late 1980s, squaring the circle inter alia through project stretches and purchase volume cutbacks. After the dust had settled it became evident that Une Défense Nouvelle was not quite as revolutionary as it first appeared to be. In substance it was consistent with the themes evident in Armées 2000/ORION, the 1992 Loi and the 1994 Livre Blanc. Its novelty - aside from the professionalisation of the armed forces - lay in the depth and range of cuts rather than in a radical revision or even a changed view of French security or France's defence role. Even the "new model army" was entirely consistent with the emphases evident in the 1994 Livre Blanc and implict in the 1992 Loi.

After an initial honeymoon Chirac's presidency fell into rapid decline and in the spring of 1997 a new socialist government under Lionel Jospin was elected opening the Fifth Republic's third term of "cohabitation". Ordinarily Presidential dominance would be expected in defence matters but the weakness and drift of Chirac (resulting inter alia from the disintegration of his personal power base, divisions in his political party, political scandals and low public approval ratings) has ceded considerable latitude in defence matters to Jospin's government. After passing an annual defence budget in 1997 which trimmed the spending projected by the 1997-2002 Loi (22) (and alarmed defence-sector unions) the Jospin government has become further emboldened in 1998. The shake-out announced on 8 July, with which we began this paper, concentrates on cutting and restructuring the logistic and support side of the armed forces (with the loss of 6,000 jobs) and is really about bringing these elements into line with the needs of the new smaller professional armed forces prefigured by Une Défense Nouvelle. It consequently cannot be understood as a strategic reappraisal nor a genuine review since none of the basic parameters of Une Défense Nouvelle have been examined or changed, but is rather a logical working through of the process begun by Chirac in 1995.

Of greater significance is the government's September proposal to facilitate parliamentary oversight of the defence budget by providing costing details of each procurement programme rather than simply handing parliament a lump sum figure for each branch of the armed services (23). Itemised expenditure is expected to be introduced in the summer of 1999 with the next annual budget and represents an important, if still limited, shift away from presidential dominance in defence and a necessary step towards strengthening the checks and balances in an authoritarian area of the constitution.

Reflecting on the foregoing allows us to draw at least two main conclusions about the French defence planning and review process. Firstly it is evident that the two periods of genuine strategic review (1990-1992 and 1995-1996) have been periods of political harmonisation between the president and government. Cohabitation appears to preclude strategic thinking, confining the protagonists to less disputed "consensus" ground.

Secondly defence policy is largely articulated and implemented through the Loi de Programmation Militaire which serves as the liaison between broader framework of policy such as the 1994 Livre Blanc and the 1996 Une Défense Nouvelle and the annual defence budgets and which appears to be useful in maintaining a certain fidelity to the overall objectives of French defence policy. The Loi, however, is subject to at least two pressures: it is prone to being undermined by subsequent annual defence budgets (the 1997 annual budget of the Jospin administration, for example, cut the spending set by the 1997-2002 Loi) and it is also prone to being superseded by an updated Loi before its term is completed (the 1995-2000 Loi for example was superseded within two year by the 1997-2002 Loi). Both issues are particularly relevant in a political context such as that in France where medium-term planning and seven-year presidential terms seem increasingly out of synch with a volatile electorate.

The most glaring weakness of the French system is the constitutional centralisation of defence policy in Presidential hands which results (even in periods of cohabitation (24)) in power being exercised through the Secrétariat Général de la Défense Nationale subject to little oversight or external influence even from parliament. On the cusp of the 21st Century this is anachronistic and unworthy of a State with profoundly democratic traditions. France could usefully open up its processes in at least three ways: firstly it could empower the checks and balances within the political system to exercise tougher oversight and accountability in defence matters; secondly it could provide greater transparency with respect to defence programmes and expenditure to facilitate oversight and accountability; and, thirdly it could widen the base of those involved in debating defence matters at the highest levels.

Two features of the French system would appear to lend themselves to export. The first is the stability of a three to five year framework of defence spending such as that provided by the Loi de Programmation Militaire. In a less volatile political context and one not hampered by cohabitation or coalition such a framework could have great utlity on both the demand and supply side. The second is the concern of the French government to explain defence thinking to the French public which arises from the direct relationship (albeit eroding) in France between individual and State. The latter is limited by not seeking wider input into French defence policy, but is clearly preferable to a situation in which few citizens are aware of what is being done in the name of their defence.

Notes and References

1. Jacques Isnard, "La restructuration des armées provoquera la suppression de 6000 emplois", Le Monde, 9 July 1998, p 9.

2. That is, a period when the President and government are from different political parties.

3. There are of course exceptions. The Institut des Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS), for example, held a high-level conference on 16 October 1997 entitled Faut-il Eliminer les Armes Nucléaires? which examined the basis and questioned the revelance of the French nuclear arsenal.

4. The best analysis of Gaullist defence policy in English is Philip Gordon, A Certain Idea of France, Princeton University Press, 1993. This book can be most usefully read in conjuction with its progenitor: Michael Harrison, The Reluctant Ally: France and Atlantic Security, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1981.

5. See for example: Pierre Lellouche, "France in search of security", Foreign Affairs, Spring 1993, p 122.

6. Jean-Raphael Alventosa, "Le Demarche Budgetaire et la Programmation Militaire", Les Cahiers du Chear, Spring 1997, pp 25-54.

7. Jean-François Couvrat, "Le Défense Coûte 52 Milliards en Trop au Budget", La Tribune, 27 June 1996, p 3.

8. Organisation Rationnelle d'une Infrastructure Opérationnelle Nouvelle.

9. Jean-Michel Boucheron, Paix et Défense, Dunod, 1992, pp 228-246. See also: Jean François Lazerges, "Armées 2000", Défense Nationale, May 1991, pp 25-40.

10. Jacques Isnard, "Programmation Militaire Française: Un Pari sur l'Avenir", Défense et Armament Internationale, September/October 1992, pp 18-21.

11. For a very detailed analysis of these changes see: Boucheron, op cit, pp 268-466.

12. "Le Plan 'Optimar 95' ou la Restructuration de la Marine", Air et Cosmos, 15-21 February 1993, p 32.

13. Livre Blanc sur la Défense, Documentation Française, March 1994.

14. Explicitly so in the first paragraph of the introduction. The government also made the Livre Blanc and a second cheaper edition available [Union Générale d'Editions] through bookstores and the French equivalent of HMSO.

15. For an insightful critique of some of these issues see: Pierre M. Gallois, Livre Noir sur la Défense, Editions Payot et Rivages, 1994.

16. I am indebted to Pascal Boniface for this insight.

17. Pierre Langereux, "613 MdF Pour la Défense Française d'ici 2000", Air et Cosmos, 2-8 May 1994, p 20.

18. Une Défense Nouvelle 1997-2015, Minstère de la Défense/SIRPA, February 1996.

19. The changes were significant enough to prompt the publication of an explanation in the popular Que sais-je? series of factual paperbacks. See: Jean-Luc Matthieu, La Défense Nationale, Que sais-je?/PUF, June 1996.

20. A useful overview of these issues in English is: Frédéric Drion. "France: New Defense for a New Millenium", Parameters, Winter 1996/97, pp 99- 108. See also: Special Issue, Armées Aujourd'hui, No 208, March 1996 devoted to the new defence plan.

21. The full title of this Loi is: Projet de Loi Relatif à la Programmation Militaire Pour les Années 1997 à 2002, Ministère de la Défense, May 1996.

22. Alexandra Schwartzbrod, "Défense: Un Budget Qui Sent La Poudre", Libération, 20 August 1997, p 10.

23. J.A.C. Lewis, "France to Outline Procurement Plans", Jane's Defence Weekly, 2 September 1998, p 13.

24. Even in periods of cohabitation the president and government are not subject to real checks and balances from parliament or anyone else, but rather are tempered by each other. For a useful discussion of the limited role of parliament and an exploration of some of the related issues see: "Point de Vue: Entretien avec Xavier de Villepin", Relations Internationales et Stratégiques, Spring 1994, pp 7-19.

Shaun Gregory is a Lecturer at the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, UK. He is grateful to the W. Alton Jones Foundation for its support in his research on French defence policy issues.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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