Thursday, January 19, 2006

France Has Nuclear Retaliation Option

Kim Rahir in Paris, Spiegel Online:
So much for European softness on Iran. French President Jacques Chirac on Thursday threatened states developing weapons of mass destruction with nuclear retaliation. He's also trying to reposition France on the world political stage.

After months of unusual reticence, French President Jacques Chirac on Thursday returned to character. In a speech about France's nuclear policy, given on the atomic submarine base Ile-Longue off the coast of Brittany, he made clear that countries which support terrorism or desire weapons of mass destruction are at risk of a nuclear attack. READ MORE

The new tack is new in that it allows France, similar to the United States, a much more flexible reaction that previously -- namely timely, concentrated attacks rather than the threat of mass destruction. It also indicates France's willingness to resort to nuclear weapons to protect allies.

"Faced with a regional power, our options shouldn't be restricted to either doing nothing or destroying them completely," said the president. The meaning of this message was clear: France wants Iran to be put under a lot more pressure from the international community in the row over nuclear power.

As Chirac gave his strategy speech, French Foreign Minister Philippe Doust-Blazy was in Moscow discussing with the Russian leadership how to present a united and strong stance against the ambitious Persian Gulf power. The message to Tehran, however, is not the only implication of Chirac's speech. The French president is likewise eager to find a new position for France's status as a nuclear power on the international stage. After all, experts believe that France, as a stand-alone state with nuclear weapons, will not be able to continue playing much of a role: It will be forced to become an integral part of a European defense alliance or deepen its ties with the US.

Iran's "nuclear extortion"

France's ability to intimidate is quickly approaching its expiration date, says Louis Gautier, the strategy expert for the opposition Socialists. "Our country can no longer play the role of the mini-superpower like it did during the Cold War," Gautier said in an interview. "France can no longer isolate itself strategically within Europe" he says.

But while Gautier, in the face of the "nuclear extortion of Iran," takes nuclear capabilities very seriously, there are plenty of politicians looking to save money who are pushing for a cut back in the French arsenal. The country's some 350 nuclear warheads, with their submarine and air support, cost tax payers approximately €3.5 billion a year to maintain. At a New Year's ceremony, General Henri Bentégeat, chief of staff of the French armed forces, said that this stately sum arouses "the constant greed of people who will only understand its worth when it is too late."

The newspaper Liberation sees the timing of the nuclear resuscitation as particularly opportune for Chirac, "who is very attached to his bombs." Chirac, it seems, is using the current dispute with Iran to continue the push for a gradual transformation of France's nuclear policy -- a push that he started back in 2001.

Originally, the basic idea of the French deterrence was that of protecting the weak from the strong. Were France to be attacked, in other words, it could quickly take extreme measures to defend itself without a large troop mobilization. But in a crisis situation with Iran, such a thought process is far from convincing. Who would be in favor of immolating an entire country merely because its leadership is building an atomic bomb behind the backs of the world community?

The strong against the crazy

Indeed it is precisely for that reason that Chirac himself questioned the principle of a massive nuclear attack in a 2001 speech on nuclear strategy. "The deterrence has to allow us to confront threats posed to our vital interests by regional powers in possession of weapons of mass destruction," Chirac said in the speech. At the time of the speech, of course, Iraq was suspected of developing nuclear weapons and other WMDs. Nevertheless, the principal was the same. Instead of the "weak against the strong," the idea had become "the strong against the crazy."

According to Chirac, the logistical reorganization of France's nuclear arsenal has already been carried out along those lines. The flexibility of its arsenal already allows France to respond quickly to nuclear attacks by retaliating against power centers and destroying its opponent's capacity to act. "All of our atomic weapons have been configured with this in mind," Chirac said on Thursday.

The decisive step in the direction of embedding the French arsenal in an international context, however, is the expansion of the notion of "vital interests," Chirac said. Such interests include threats to supply lines and allies.

With such a position, France would have reserved for itself a new political weight and a new strategic role at the European level. Indeed, its nuclear weapons could help give greater muscle to European foreign policy.

Domestic considerations

Chirac's Thursday speech, in fact, was also directed at his European partners. The French president, after all, has taken more than a few punches during the past year. First there was the embarrassing debacle that ensued when the French referendum on the European constitution failed. Angela Merkel's election as Germany's new chancellor didn't exactly come at a great time for Chirac, since he could earlier count on Gerhard Schröder's shoulder to lean on in difficult times. People close to Merkel say she enjoys good relations with Chirac's archrival and would-be successor, French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy who, incidentally, is part of small camp in the French right-wing who remain unconvinced of the utility of maintaining France's nuclear arsenal.

But Chirac's speech was clearly aimed as much at domestic considerations as at the situation in the Persian Gulf. During the course of the past year, the president has suffered from an unprecedented loss of stature. One election loss for his conservative UMP party followed the other, the EU referendum failed and on top of everything else, the president suffered from health problems last autumn. In September, the 73-year-old suffered from a light stroke and was incapacitated for several weeks.

When the youth began to riot in the Parisian suburbs in early November, Chirac didn't speak publicly about the violence for days. When he finally did appear on television, he appeared absent, resigned and old. Just a few weeks ago, when he gave his annual New Year's speech, he had trouble reading from his manuscript -- a development his spokesman later blamed on problems with the TelePrompter.

But a groundbreaking speech on French nuclear policy, a domain reserved exclusively for the decisive push of a button from the president, finally provided Chirac with the opportunity to once again make a successful appearance before the French people.