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Will France at least discuss nuclear weapons?

Gunnar Westberg, TFF Board member*

October 23, 2009

France has a reputation of being the country where the question of nuclear disarmament is taboo. Any aspect of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy is the prerogative of the President who does not condescend to discuss these exalted questions with the parliament or – God forbid! – journalists or common citizens. French diplomats taking part in international negotiations insist that as long as there is a bow and an arrow left in the world, France needs its nuclear weapons.

The reason for the French intransigence may be that the raison d’etre of the French nuclear force is so weak.

To keep Germany down and the USA in

When the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France in 1954 decided that France should develop nuclear weapons, his decision was based on his wartime experience: he feared German rearmament. As NATO grew stronger it became clear that the organization was going to be successful in two of its three goals: To keep Russia out and Germany down. However, France distrusted the USA and was uncertain if the third goal of NATO, to keep USA in Europe, could be secured. NATO was not sufficient. France developed its nuclear strategy with the goal to force the USA to defend Europe.

To this end, the French nuclear armed missiles were directed towards Soviet cities, not against that country’s nuclear installations. If the Soviet Union threatened, or invaded, Western Europe, French nuclear weapons would destroy Leningrad, Moscow , Minsk and other big cities. The Soviet military leaders would see this as an attack by NATO. Nuclear missiles have no “Sender” label. The response from the Soviet Union would be an all out attack on all NATO countries, especially the USA.

Knowing that this was French strategy, the US would be forced to tell the Russians that they would stand up for Europe. Thus, the French nukes were intended to force US policy.

Deterrence works only if the adversary knows what you may be able to do if he attacks you. In this case we must ask if the US knew what the French policy was and accepted its implications. In a conversation I had with General Lee Butler about ten years ago, he said that only when in 1991 he became Commander in Chief of the US Strategic Command did he learn that the French nuclear doctrine was primarily intended to force the American hand. If this was not generally known in the US leadership, how could the US leaders tell the Russians they intended to stand up for Europe, by force if not by will. You can be too clever.

Today - Nukes keeps peace and increases French self-esteem

The French nuclear strategy today is less diabolic, but not more rational and not more ethical. A French minister of defense said recently that if France was attacked by terrorists, the country supporting these terrorists would be subject to nuclear retaliation. Polls in France report that many or most French citizens say that they need to keep their nukes against the flow of immigrants from North Africa. How the nukes are going to be used in this context is not discussed.

I recently met the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, M. Martin Briens, Deputy Director of the new section for Nuclear Proliferation and Disarmament. When I asked him why France needs its nuclear weapons today while Germany can do without, he said that Germany was under the nuclear umbrella.

One might ask, whose umbrella? As reasons why France should have and keep its nuclear weapons, he listed:

1. We have them. History justifies.

2. We have only good intentions, others, e.g. Iran, have evil intentions.

3. We have the right according to the NPT.

4. China is increasing its nuclear weapons force, soon to be equal to that of France. In general there was so much talk about China in the attempts to justify French nukes that I almost felt as if China was about to invade France!

Fear of a nuclear-weapon-free world

The core of his thinking was however clear, beyond all the muddled arguments: A world without nuclear weapons is unstable. In such a world there would be much less deterrence against war. Nuclear weapons keep peace.

This is of course a classical argument. If we look back over the time since World War II we can muster strong claims both for and against this theory. Here is not the place to review this discussion. We in the peace movement argue that had nuclear deterrence between the USA and the Soviet Union failed we would not be here to argue. And we were pretty close to extinction on more than one occasion, notably in 1983. If nuclear weapons are allowed to persist they will be used.

It may be appropriate to remind ourselves that in a world without nuclear weapons the US military superiority would be enormous and sufficient to achieve what the nuclear deterrence might be doing today. Maybe this, the US military hegemony, is what France fears most of all?

Things may be changing?

The discussion on nuclear disarmament has been heavily censored in France, as has any discussion on nuclear strategy. However, things may be changing. Four previous political and military leaders with a high status in France have written an article in the journal Le Monde of October 15, 2009. They are Alain Juppé and Michel Rocard, both previous Prime ministers, Bernard Norlain, general and former commander of the air combat force, and AIain Ricard, former minister of Defense.

They argue that the risk of nuclear proliferation is great and increasing. Many nations may acquire nuclear weapons in the next decade or two. In that situation the ”old” nuclear weapon states cannot force their will upon these states, for fear of nuclear retaliation. We should therefore start a debate, they say, if the time has not come for France to greatly decrease its dependence on nuclear weapons, in order to make our anti-proliferation agenda credible.

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Thus the arguments were quite similar to those from the US “Gang of Four” in their publications in Wall Street Journal in January 2008 and January 2009. But - of course - the French papers made no reference to the US article, nor to the British, German or Polish publications with the same arguments and written by previous leaders in foreign policy and defense. France has its own independent agenda and does not follow anyone’s lead. And in the best of cases, the paper asked only for discussions, not for action.

Within hours, the publication of the French four's article was countered by another article, long on words and short on arguments, written by a well-known journalist, Jean Guisnel. He argued that France should not disarm, because no one else would follow. This argument is used repeatedly by all those who oppose disarmament. They pretend that unilateral disarmament has been proposed, which is never the case.

What is and should be discussed is this: How best to achieve a multilateral, transparent, verifiable nuclear disarmament? How to make credible that the ultimate goal is Zero nuclear weapons, so as to make nuclear wannabes abstain from these weapons?

Remember Mururoa!

France may be the last and the most difficult holdout. But when the endgame of nuclear abolition begins, even France will see the writing on the wall.

If not, remember Mururoa! When the President of France threatened to continue the nuclear tests on that crumbling island, we took to the streets and poured good Bordeaux into the gutters. It worked that time. It could work again.

Gunnar Westberg

Former President of IPPNW, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear war.

Here is the text written by Juppé, Norlain, Ricard, and Rocard
(Translated by Peter Low)

The comment published four hours later in "Le Point" by Jean Guisnel,



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