France unveils new security strategy with EU focus

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy yesterday (17 June) presented a major overhaul of his country’s defence doctrine, revealing a shift away from French “exceptionalism” in favour of a stronger European defence outlook.

The paper, which is the first major review of France’s defence strategy since 1994, calls for a smaller, more mobile army, with investment shifted away from personnel to modern equipment and better intelligence to adapt the country’s defence forces to the post-Soviet reality. 

In stark contrast to previous security doctrines, the new strategy is clearly embedded into the European context. Making the EU a major player in crisis management and international security is seen as “one of the central tenets” of French security policy. 

At the root of the plans is Sarkozy’s desire to build an independent defence capability with a view to being taken seriously by the US.  

Presenting the new strategy before some 3,000 French soldiers in Paris, Sarkozy vowed that “the French EU Presidency will be a veritable relaunch of European for the years to come”. 

To the annoyance of several MEPs, the publication of the White Paper had been delayed until after last week’s Irish referendum to avoid giving the ‘neutral’ Irish another reason to vote ‘no’ (EURACTIV 10/06/08). Indeed, Dublin had voiced strong apprehension regarding the new set of rules contained in the Lisbon Treaty, aimed at facilitating closer defence cooperation among the 27 member states. 

The French strategy follows this line, calling upon the EU to increase its planning and operational capability, both military and civilian. It also pushes for a restructuring of the European defence industry in terms of pooling national resources as individual European countries “can no longer master every technology and capability at national level”.

The paper further stresses the importance of achieving the EU’s headline goal of setting up a rapid intervention force with a capability of 60,000 soldiers, deployable for up to one year around the globe, as agreed by EU leaders at the Helsinki Summit in December 2003.   

The doctrine also underlines the complementarity of EU and NATO defence structures, contrasting with Sarkozy’s precessor Jacques Chirac who viewed the two as mutually exclusive. France pulled out of the alliance’s military structures back in 1966 at the order of then-President Charles de Gaulle due to fears over US and British domination. 

But President Sarkozy, a staunch Atlanticist and admirer of the US, pledged France would return in time for the 60th anniversary of NATO in 2009, as long as there is “parallel progress” in developing a European security and defence poliy, which would allow the EU to carry out missions outside the NATO framework. 

“I want the Alliance to be more European, and how can we have a more European alliance without France?” Sarkozy said. 

British MEP Geoffrey Van Orden, the Conservative spokesman on defence at EU level, dismissed Sarkozy’s pledge to cooperate more closely with NATO as mere “lip service” to woo “a US presidency in a period of change and a weak British government which always gives in to French demands that never benefit the UK”.

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