By warning that France could use nuclear weapons against state sponsors of terrorism, President Jacques Chirac is signaling that the US does not have a monopoly on nuclear deterrence, analysts said.
French experts also agreed that Chirac's speech on Thursday did not mark a fundamental policy shift but rather a refinement of current nuclear doctrine.
Chirac's unexpected warning to "rogue" states was intended to show that "one does not leave the monopoly of deterrence to the Americans," argued Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI).
"It was a Gaullist-inspired speech aimed at giving renewed legitimacy to France's deterrent arsenal, within the context of Europe," he said.
Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), also saw the message as an assertion of nuclear independence from the US, but one aimed at France's European partners.
"Jacques Chirac wants to give credibility to the European Union's strategic autonomy," Maulny said -- despite the fact that, according to one military expert, most European nations wish to remain under the US nuclear umbrella.
France and Britain are the only EU nations to have nuclear arsenals.
Asked whether Britain would consider using nuclear arms against state sponsors of terrorism, the British Foreign Office said its policy was not to give advance warning of its intended response to specific threats.
Meanwhile, Maulny questioned the strategic wisdom of Chirac's decision to clarify French strategic doctrine in the face of emerging threats.
"Is this necessary? That's not certain. Because the doctrine of deterrence is all the more effective when it stays vague," Maulny said.
"Under [late presidents] De Gaulle and Mitterrand, the doctrine was simply to say: `I have nuclear weapons and I will not hesitate to use them,'" he said.
In a wide-ranging policy speech, Chirac warned on Thursday that any state that sponsored a terrorist attack -- or was considering using weapons of mass destruction -- against France, would be laying itself open to a nuclear attack.
He also extended the definition of the "vital interests" that France would defend with nuclear weapons to include its allies and "strategic supplies" -- widely taken to mean oil -- and condemned "the temptation by certain countries to obtain nuclear capabilities in contravention of treaties".
Although no specific country was mentioned, Chirac was understood to be referring to Iran. The West is currently engaged in an escalating dispute with Tehran over its nuclear program and is seeking to win guarantees from Iran that it is not developing nuclear arms.
"We are thinking quite clearly of Iran," Moisi said of that reference by Chirac.
Chirac also indicated in Thursday's speech that the previous Cold War strategy of threatening enemies with massive and widespread destruction had been changed to a doctrine permitting a graduated and limited nuclear response.
He said that France had configured its nuclear arsenal -- widely believed to number between 200 and 300 warheads -- to be able to respond "flexibly and reactively" to any threat, by reducing the number of heads on certain missiles.
Such a move would enable it to conduct strikes on specific targets and limit the zone of destruction.