France: Another Nuclear “Rogue State”

22 January 2006

France: Another Nuclear “Rogue State”

By Gwynne Dyer

“The leaders of states who use terrorist methods against us, as well as those who consider using…weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they would expose themselves to a firm and appropriate response on our part. This response could be a conventional one. It might also be of a different kind.”

On 19 January, President Jacques Chirac announced a major change in French nuclear strategy while visiting Ile Longue, the country’s main nuclear submarine base. Speaking on the missile-firing submarine Le Vigilant, he said that in future France would consider using nuclear weapons against any country that supported a major terrorist attack against it. But he did promise that he’d only nuke it a little bit: “We should not have to choose between inaction and obliteration….The flexibility and reactivity of our strategic (nuclear) forces should allow us to respond against its power centres, against its capacity to act.”

Oh, good. For a minute there it sounded as if Chirac was planning to obliterate any county that he suspected of sponsoring a terrorist attack against France, but no. He would only nuke their “power centres” and their “capacity to act.”

What does that mean in practice? Well, it seems to mean that if terrorists flew a hijacked plane into a tall building in Paris and Chirac suspected that Iran was behind it, for example, he would only nuke the prime minister’s office, the defence ministry and the intelligence headquarters in Tehran, and maybe three or four key military facilities around the country. With luck, only a few million Iranians would die.

Chirac is so concerned about sparing innocent lives that he has even ordered France’s missiles to be modified for selective strikes that don’t obliterate whole countries. “All our nuclear forces have been reconfigured accordingly. To this end, the number of warheads has been reduced on some missiles on our submarines,” he said.

During the Cold War, every one of the sixteen missiles on each French submarine had six nuclear warheads, because France wanted to be able to kill fifty or a hundred million Russians if the Soviet Union ever invaded Western Europe. (It was called “deterrence.”) But now, Chirac assures us, a few of the missiles on each French submarine carry only two or three few warheads, adjusted to cause smaller nuclear explosions, in case he wants to kill foreigners in (relatively) smaller numbers.

What on earth has incited Chirac to start talking like this only months before he leaves office? Partly, one suspects, it is just his frustration at no longer being in the limelight, but he also has a more serious goal: to secure the future of France’s “force de frappe” (nuclear striking force) long after he has left office. Like its creator, Charles de Gaulle, he believes that it is an essential element of France’s independence and its ticket to all the high tables of the planet.

Even among Chirac’s own right-wing colleagues there is now open debate about the desirability of maintaining France’s nuclear striking force forever. After all, the Soviet Union, the enemy it was built to deter, has been gone for fifteen years now, and there is not a single nuclear-weapons power in the world that sees France as a potential enemy. It costs 3 billion euros ($2 billion) a year just to maintain the country’s nuclear striking force, and one day in the not too distant future it will cost a great deal more to modernise it. Why don’t we just scrap it?

Faced with a similar dilemma on the other side of the Channel, Tony Blair’s government simply argues that Britain must keep its nuclear weapons because — well, because who knows what the world will be like twenty years from now? In Cartesian France, however, you are expected to make a more coherent argument than that, so Chirac is doing the best he can.

Chirac’s basic problem is that France has no real, nuclear-armed enemy to deter with its nukes any more. His solution is to extend the target list to include non-nuclear enemies — “terrorist-supporting states,” for example — and justify their retention that way.

Chirac’s new position is not unique. The United States retracted its old half-promise not to use nukes against non-nuclear-weapons states years ago, and the Bush administration has been pressing for the development of a new generation of “mini-nukes” to do exactly what Chirac suggests at a somewhat lower cost in innocent lives).

Bush believed that Saddam Hussein supported the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States (or at least he said he did), and existing US doctrine would have allowed him to use those nukes in response. He invaded instead because the neo-conservatives who run US foreign policy had been seeking a pretext to do exactly that for years, but another time might be different. So why shouldn’t Chirac adopt the same doctrine?

Because to demand that countries outside the nuclear weapons club renounce any ambitions to get them, while the existing members expand their nuclear target lists to include countries that don’t have them, is worse than hypocritical. It is self-defeating. After this, how can France demand with a straight face that Iran forego nuclear weapons? The world has got used to this sort of behaviour from the sole superpower, but who gave Chirac permission to behave like an American president?


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 9. (“During…numbers”; and “Faced…he can”)