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France's Strategic Posture: Series Introduction

Monday, June 9, 2008

PARIS -- Next week, a commission appointed by President Nicolas Sarkozy will unveil France's eagerly awaited White Book on Defense and National Security. The product of months of reviews and fierce debate among France's national security community, the Livre Blanc (as it is known) will largely determine France's strategic posture and military procurement priorities for the coming 15 years. The direct impact of the commission's findings will be felt principally within the French military. But in articulating France's strategic orientation and tactical capabilities, their indirect effect will ripple outward, most immediately within Europe and the NATO alliance, but also beyond.

The commission's work must also be understood in the context of a year which saw President Sarkozy announce his willingness to rejoin the NATO integrated command structure and his desire to renegotiate France's bilateral military treaties on the African continent; the opening of a permanent French military base in the United Arab Emirates; as well as a re-articulation of France's nuclear deterrent policy. Taken as a whole, the developments reinforce the image of a nation engaged in a thorough re-examination of its national security posture. So as much as the commission's final conclusions, which have not yet been officially released even if the broad lines have filtered out, the debates that went into reaching them are in themselves revealing.

Over the course of the past month, World Politics Review met with leading figures representing a wide range of France's national security and foreign policy community. Our interlocuters, all of whom were extremely generous with their time and insight, included Eric Chevallier, special advisor to Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner; Michel Miraillet, the director of the Defense Ministry's Strategic Affairs Directorate; Sen. Didier Boulaud (PS), member of the Senate Commission on Foreign Affairs, Defense & Armed Forces, who resigned in protest from the Livre Blanc Commission; Maj. General Vincent Desportes, commander of the Force Employment Doctrine Center for the French Army; Yves Boyer, deputy director of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique (FRS); Bruno Tertrais, who spoke with us in his capacity as research fellow at the FRS but who is also a member of the Livre Blanc Commission; and Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégique. We also had the privilege of interviewing former foreign minister Hubert Védrine, the full text of which will conclude the series of articles to follow.

"France is a country in contact with the Atlantic community, the Mediterranean community and the European community. That particularity defines a certain number of character traits of our posture. Secondly, you have the principle of autonomy. Notwithstanding the Alliance, notwithstanding the European Union, there are certain aspects of defense where the French want to act and build with complete autonomy." Yves Boyer

What emerges from these discussions is a vision of the world and France's place in it that, despite many differences of perspective and emphasis, as well as some fundamental and profound disagreements, still manages to form a coherent whole. It's a vision that in many ways overlaps with that of its European and American allies but that remains nonetheless distinctly French, rooted in its geography, informed by its culture, and imprinted with its strategic history. It helps explain France's historically independent posture at the heart of the Western alliance, as well as its ability, under the Fifth Republic, to formulate a relatively broad and durable strategic consensus based upon a secure Western alliance, construction of a European power, and French liberty of position. Disagreement certainly exists about the proper doses of each, but the broad lines have remained stable.

"What's striking is the degree to which there's a great fluidity and complexity that go into international decisions. The fantasy that exists in public opinion, and in decisionmaking circles as well, that it's enough for a few states to get together and decide? That's over. Over, over, over." Eric Chevallier ...

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