President Nicolas Sarkozy said yesterday that terrorism posed the greatest threat to France as he presented his new defense strategy.
“Today, the most immediate threat is that of a terrorist attack,” Sarkozy said in an address to some 3,000 senior officers in Paris.
“The threat is there, it is real and we know that it can tomorrow take on a new form, even more serious, with nuclear, chemical and biological means,” he said.
The speech followed the release on Monday of the first major defense review in 14 years that confirmed France’s goal of returning to NATO command and identified intelligence as crucial to confront the threats of the post-Sept. 11 world.
Written by a blue-ribbon panel of 35 experts, the white paper on defense called for doubling the intelligence budget for new satellites, drones and other surveillance equipment. The investments would be offset by a sizable cut of 54,000 military and civilian defense ministry personnel over the next six or seven years from the current level of 320,000.
France will trim its army, navy and air force from 271,000 troops to 224,000, with the army alone set for a 24 percent cut.
Some 50 military bases, garrisons and other defense facilities are to be closed in a move that has already touched off protests in towns that fear economic hardship.
The new doctrine reflects a shift for France, which has the largest army of the EU, to make homeland security part of its defense strategy in the age of terrorism, cyber attacks and natural disasters.
“For the first time in centuries, France does not base its defense policy on the hypothesis of a major military conflict in Europe and that is quite revolutionary,” said Bruno Tertrais, a member of the expert panel. “For the first time, we are dealing simultaneously with defense and homeland security issues.”
France’s defense spending will total 377 billion euros (US$583 billion) from next year to 2020, the document said.
The new policy sets at 30,000 the number of combat-ready troops, down from its current targeted level of 50,000, and calls for the shutting down of some of France’s four permanent bases in Africa.
Underscoring the new focus on intelligence-gathering, a national security council will be set up at the Elysee palace and a former ambassador to Iraq and Algeria, Bernard Bajolet, has been named to the newly-created post of national intelligence coordinator.
The last defense review was carried out in 1994 and focused on consolidating the gains of the end of the Cold War. The previous one dates back to 1972.
“There is a very strong emphasis on intelligence, recognizing that the world may not be more dangerous than it was in 1994 ... but it seems more unpredictable,” Tertrais said.
The white paper also recognizes that France lacks the means to assess strategic developments in Asia, suggesting it could boost its intelligence-gathering means in that region, Tertrais said.
“This is a major shift from external security to interior security,” said Jean-Pierre Maulny, the deputy director of the Institute of International and Strategic Studies. “In one sense, it creates the impression of more modest French ambitions abroad and a return to protecting borders.”
The white paper calls on France to participate at all levels of NATO, confirming Sarkozy’s intention to bring France back into the integrated command, which it left in 1966 when Charles de Gaulle rejected US dominance of the alliance.
“This is a rapprochement with the Americans,” Maulny said.
It also reaffirms Sarkozy’s drive to strengthen European defense, with a call for a 60,000-strong EU force.
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