A serious crisis played out during the past month over the future of France’s defense budget, pitting the pared-down and overstretched Defense Ministry against the cost-cutters of the Budget Ministry. Though the Defense Ministry has been spared for now, the fallout may leave lasting marks on the French military leadership’s morale, and on the country’s reputation as a European defense leader.
In the first 18 months of Francois Hollande’s presidency, France underwent a full defense review. The financial crisis and geopolitical changes, it was believed, warranted a revision of the country’s 2008 Defense White Paper. Moreover, a new Military Program Law (MPL), or multiyear defense plan, had to be drafted, since the previous one was valid only until 2014.
The White Paper, published in April 2013, and the MPL, passed in December, were tough exercises. Several defense models were designed to take into account budgetary constraints. “Bercy,” as the Budget Ministry is nicknamed after its location, pushed for the so-called Z model, which, by slashing the defense budget from roughly 32 billion euros to between 25 billion and 30 billion euros per year through 2019, would have forced France to give up significant capabilities, such as its only aircraft carrier and its heavy tanks. Its adoption would also have had major political effects, including the loss of France’s status and role as a key global military player.