French Foreign, Defense, and National Security Policy: New Initiatives?

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By Alix Boucher – Commissioned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, two new White Papers—one on defense and national security policy, the other on foreign affairs—herald major change in France’s strategic objectives and tools for implementing its policies.[1] The White Papers are the first significant rethink of French national security and foreign policy since 1994 when analysis focused on the implications of the end of the Cold War. These new papers look ahead to the challenges of the 21st century.

The White Papers make high-impact announcements with potentially wide implications for how France monitors potential crises, decides how to take part in intervention, and views its role within the wider international community.

First, the new Paper on Defense marks an important shift to a wider “strategic arc,” from Europe to Asia, via Africa, the Middle East, and the Caucasus. And rather than focus just on defense, it describes a much broader national security and defense policy in which French domestic security is recognized as affected by global connections and dynamics. To engage this wider geographic arc, the Defense and National Security White Paper would create leaner and more mobile French military capabilities. This “right-sizing” initiative would close a number of military facilities across France and overseas, decrease the total number of troops in each armed service, and increase intelligence, military rapid deployment capacity, and civilian capacity for crisis response (particularly in the rule of law, institutional capacity building, education, and health areas). The initiative will also involve an increased focus on new technologies for contingents.

To streamline decision-making within this arc, the White Papers recommend the creation of two National Councils: one on National Security (modeled on the US National Security Council) and the other on French Action Abroad. Both will be led by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The National Security Council will discuss both domestic and international threats to security while the other council will endeavor to integrate the actions of the various ministries involved in overseas action. When a decision to intervene needs to be made, the Executive Branch will now seek parliamentary approval within the intervention’s first three months. The White Papers explain this will bring France to the level of other Western democracies with more extensive consultative processes in this area and ensure improved legislative-branch oversight over these previously executive branch decisions.

Second, concerning crisis response capacity and participation in peacekeeping operations, France will first rejoin NATO’s military component. It will also strengthen its intelligence and early warning mechanisms by investing in human resources, and, of course, technology. France also envisions being able to deploy 5,000 troops in five to seven days and having sufficient air assets to deploy 1,500 of them in two to three days. This rapid deployment capacity will be reinforced by France’s ability to deploy 30,000 troops within six months, for up to a year. Additionally, France will encourage the European Union to revert back to its 1999 Headline Goal of a 60,000 strong military deployment capacity for stabilization, reconstruction, and peace support operations. Given lack of such capacity (on all fronts) within other developed countries’ militaries, such forces would be of great assistance to international crisis response efforts.

Although welcomed in Washington, these announcements are stirring some trouble in France itself. Indeed, analysts have questioned both the direction and the extent of these reforms. In particular, an anonymous group of senior officers published a critical letter in the right-leaning daily, Le Figaro, noting several deficiencies in the Sarkozy Administration’s new strategic objectives.[2]

Reactions are so intense in part because these White Papers are so rare. Unlike the United States, which has updated its National Security Strategy twice in this decade, French strategy was last revised in 1994 and, before that, in 1972.

Of particular concern is the expansion of the “strategic arc” and the so-called right-sizing of French forces. The critics contend that having fewer or smaller French bases in Africa and the Pacific will also hamper effective rapid deployment, and that expanding the “arc” risks Africa being forgotten. (France has long been one of the main military responders to crises on the continent.) The oped-writers, while they acknowledge that rapidly deployable capacity will undoubtedly help France take an increasing role in responding to crises, worry that the focus on rapid deployment will occur at the expense of sustainability. They fear that while deployed contingents will get there quickly and have increased access to intelligence, lack of basic equipment and resources (which they worry will not be replaced as needed because of the focus on purchasing new technology and the related equipment) will significantly jeopardize their mission.

More, President Sarkozy has been criticized for announcing some of these changes, including the creation of the National Security Council and the shift in France’s NATO commitments, before the White Papers were actually completed, giving the effort a sense of fait-accompli, and off-putting to those who thought their views were being taken into account when, in fact, the President appeared to be making key decisions on his own.

In sum, the White Papers provide important insight into the Sarkozy Administration’s vision for the remainder of his term in office. Additionally, many of these reforms are viewed positively by both political parties in Washington because they may lead to increased French participation in NATO operations, particularly in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, it will be important, in the coming months, for the Sarkozy Administration to provide an improved rationale and strategy for implementing these reforms. If not, President Sarkozy runs the risk of developing the reputation of excelling at great announcements without being able to act upon them.

[1] For the White Paper on National Security and Defense Policy, see “Défense et Sécurité Nationale: Le Livre Blanc,” June 2008, La Documentation Française, /le_livre_blanc_l_integrale/le_livre_blanc_l_integrale__1. For the White Paper on Foreign and European Policy, see “La France et l’Europe dans le monde: Livre Blanc sur la politique étrangère et européenne de la France 2008–2020,” commission président by Alain Juppé and Louis Schweitzer, July 2008,

[2] See “Surcouf,” “Livre Blanc sur la Défense: Une Espérance Déçue?” Le Figaro, 18 June 2008,


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