France’s Shakespearean defence review

There are two sure signs that France’s defence review is entering its end-game: a new imprecision has crept into forecasts of when the outcome will be published (“spring”); and interesting disclosures are beginning to appear

There are two sure signs that France’s defence review ( the “livre blanc” exercise) is entering its end-game: a new imprecision has crept into forecasts of when the outcome will be published (“spring”); and interesting disclosures are beginning to appear.

Thus through Le Monde we learn that the head of the French army has warned against ‘pauperising’ his service (by implication, to fund the inflated equipment aspirations of Navy and Air Force); the Defence Minister pre-emptively declares that that manpower numbers must come down by 30,000 over the next 5 years; and Le Figaro splashes the leaked contents of the overall strategic analysis submitted last month to President Sarkozy by the supervising Commission.

‘Much Ado about Nothing’ sniffs one leading blogger: Sarkozy insists on ‘no taboos’, but what scope for any ‘break with the past’ if it is already determined that France will retain deployable, professional armed forces, backed with a nuclear deterrent, operating through NATO and the EU, and funded from about 2% of GDP?

In truth, it seems that France’s defence establishment is rediscovering the iron law that defence reviews may start by being about policy, but end by being about money. To students (or indeed veterans) of Britain’s own Strategic Defence Review of 1998, there is more than a hint of ‘déjà vu’. A new government comes to power, recognises that it has inherited an unaffordable defence programme and, full of vigour and confidence, is determined to achieve a new balance through trenchant policy analysis and bold decision-making. Real cut-backs in capability will if necessary be made, determined on the basis of strategic priorities rather than vested interest; but their extent will be limited by a ruthless drive to eliminate waste and duplication in the infrastructure of defence. Thus the manpower cuts are to be achieved through out-sourcing of support functions, leaving the ‘front line’ untouched; Ministry of Defence and the separate Service HQs are to be brought together on a new site in the Paris suburbs; anything that the three Services currently do separately, such as training helicopter pilots, will be up for amalgamation; and the network of bases and establishments, at home and overseas, will be radically pruned. Defence, declares the President, should not be treated as an instrument of regional policy.

The trouble, of course, is that the regions are where most of France’s voters and Deputies are to be found. So, too, the industries and jobs that depend on the plethora of major new equipment programmes (big air-lifters, air-to-air refuellers, armoured vehicles, nuclear-powered attack submarines, transport and attack helicopters, a second aircraft carrier, new-generation frigates – the list goes on) which the French Defence Minister calculated at the outset to be 40% unaffordable.

It is here, in the dense undergrowth of possible cuts and rationalisations, that the final, often fratricidal, stages of the review will be fought out – with occasional eruptions aimed at so shocking the rest of government that more money is wrung out of the Finance Ministry, ballooning public deficit or no. Much ado about quite a lot, in fact.

That British experience of 10 years ago provides grounds for hope. The Strategic Defence Review was generally judged a success, and restored a degree of equilibrium to defence finances for a number of years. Alas, nothing is forever; and the irony is that Britain’s own defence effort is now every bit as insolvent as that of France, only with no chance of the government acknowledging the fact this side of the next election. The hard truth is that, for second-rank powers such as Britain and France, it is simply no longer affordable to sustain comprehensive defence capabilities on a strictly national basis.

Which takes us back to the bard. Much Ado about Nothing is the story of Beatrice and Benedick – a couple clearly, to everyone but them, destined for each other. But, each fiercely independent, they waste years talking past each other, mistiming their mutual approaches, indulging in unhelpful flirtations elsewhere, and generally delighting in sticking fingers in each other’s psychological wounds. Sounds familiar? For the two Bs, it was at last a case of All’s Well that Ends Well. For Britain and France, the drama is not yet played out. But each new tryst offers hope – and President Sarkozy’s upcoming state visit to the UK could be a more than usually auspicious moment.


The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

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