Internally, the French military
is going through massive upheaval under Jacques Chirac
. In 1996, the French President
, as well as the then Prime Minister Lionel Jospin
, announced sweeping changes, encompassing dramatic restructuring of all three branches of the military
, reductions in troop
numbers, and significant reduction and restructuring of the nuclear deterrent
. The most important change instigated by Jacques Chirac
however, and the one with the most wide-ranging consequences for France
and Western Europe
, is the end of the French political
institution of conscription
- so important that in 2001, abandoning its slow phasing out along with the rest of the military restructuring, the institution was immediately abandoned.
Conscription in France originated after the revolution in 1789, and has always been used as a method for bringing a sense of civic responsibility to French citizens. Compulsory military service has also provided a common initiative experience to French youths, providing a sense of national and generational cohesion. But the institution has been deeply flawed since the end of the Cold War. Not surprisingly, military service is now seen as a waste of time. There is compelling evidence that conscripts from racial minorities are discriminated against during their service by being given the worst jobs or rejected from it entirely, and the more educated conscripts from higher classes were being pampered during their term of duty. Therefore, while opposition for conscription's elimination has come from varying sides of the political spectrum, the move has been popular with the general public - with about two thirds support.
The end of conscription has established a French military much better suited for its post-Cold War duties. During the Cold War, the French Army was viewed as a mere 'trip-wire' for the use of nuclear force. In other words, the primary defence of French territory was nuclear force, while the army would provide a temporary resistance that would stand back when nuclear force was employed. But with the end of the Soviet threat, and the subsequent end of the need for a strong nuclear deterrent, the French Army has had to readapt itself for the contemporary security dilemma - a need which manifested itself during its participation with NATO in the Gulf War. Post-Soviet experience has necessitated building a strong, professional military, consisting entirely of volunteers, better suited to participate in localised humanitarian and policing missions. Jacques Chirac's plan cuts French military personnel by about one-third - from 500,000 to 300,000 - and makes the entire military more cost-efficient, with a budget cut of approximately one-fifth. The new entirely volunteer and professional French military will be a more easily organised, able to be rapidly deployed and effective than its half-conscript, half-professional, expensive predecessor, and more suited to current political environment.
French military reforms are not limited to internal restructuring, but extend to their participation in NATO and the EU itself. The anti-American and therefore anti-NATO spectre of Charles De Gaulle, who took France out of the alliance's military bodies in 1966, had affected the French policy until well after his death. Just as it took a Socialist President, Francois Mitterand, to push France towards open markets, it has taken the neo-Gaullist Chirac to redefine the French role in NATO. Similar concerns that have provoked the internal reforms and the end of conscription have necessitated the reinvolvement of France in the alliance - rising military budgets coupled with the post-Cold War political environment. Successful cooperation with NATO in Yugoslavia convinced the French that the treaty was not the imperialist American-directed organisation that they had been led to believe under Gaullist influence. Also notably, the United Nations coalition of British and French forces' peacekeeping operation in Bosnia illustrated the problems that arose without American involvement. The French do not want to see their return to NATO as an embarrassed admission of the failure of their military independence however - other NATO partners such as Britain have readily consented to drastic reforms of the command structure, and so their return is to be seen as a reinvigoration of the alliance. NATO, geared for the Cold War with its emphasis on nuclear deterrent, was top heavy and too expensive for the new security challenges, so the new French influenced alliance will be leaner and smaller, more flexible and mobile.
However, the French return to NATO also comes with traditional French-American competition. The command of Allied Forces Southern Europe (AFSOUTH) in Naples has always been a US position, but France has insisted on a new European, specifically French, led AFSOUTH. AFSOUTH is an important position for the United States, as it is the only major US command position in Europe, and the removal of the US command there would weaken American influence on regional affairs in Europe. The French have been insistent on this issue, desperate to inject stronger French power into NATO, and have the backing of most of the European members of NATO, however for purely pragmatic purposes, US command of AFSOUTH is more beneficial to the alliance as a whole.
The French military's new role, following the end of the Soviet threat, has consequently lessened the need for nuclear deterrent. French nuclear independence has long been a keystone of foreign policy, and its force de frappe a source of dignity for its military - it was US President John F. Kennedy's hostility to a nuclear armed France that turned Charles De Gaulle against NATO in 1966 - it is nuclear forces which have defined French military policy since 1959. Jacques Chirac's 1996 reforms reduce the French nuclear capability, by retiring several obsolete missile systems, and modernising remaining systems. Even with French reinvolvement into the military aspects of NATO, the idea that France might rejoin the alliance's Nuclear Planning Group is an extremely unlikely option. However, nuclear independence is still not a sacred military right, under Tony Blair the British Government is preparing to share their nuclear deterrent with France, and develop a joint nuclear programme.
The French government has not abandoned however Gaullist attitudes towards NATO, and still harbours an ambivalent hostility towards the alliance. The French attitude to the EU is that of a political union, with a fully developed defence component. French policy-makers have long considered it their responsibility to lead the process towards European unification. The US military presence through NATO is therefore regarded as necessary, but with suspicion of the nature of the American intentions. The dispute over the AFSOUTH command has held back complete French reintegration into the NATO military structure - and Chirac has said that he will not fully join until the United States surrenders control to a European officer. But the major form of the French challenge to NATO, and likely to be its most successful, is its advocacy of the European Rapid Reaction Force (ERRF). The European Rapid Reaction Force would remove overt American influence and presence from local European military affairs - an outcome which has been the unstated goal of French military policy since the end of the Second World War.