France Bites the Bullet, But Avoids Strategic Insolvency

Pris entre les contraintes budégtaires et les ambitions nationales, le Livre blanc sur la défense qui vient d’être remis à François Hollande, cherche une voie moyenne. La France compte désormais sur ses partenaires européens pour conserver une politique étrangère et militaire actives.




After eight months, many tough negotiations, and even tougher decisions, French President François Hollande has delivered on his promise of a White Book on Defense and Security. The previous edition of the document dated from 2008 and no longer faithfully represented the nature of the security challenges facing France, nor the budgetary crisis that was soon to afflict its military. The new version, an effort to relieve some of the government’s budgetary pressures, does avert some worst-case scenarios, but still promises the half the number of deployable French troops. More significantly, the White Book also suggests that France is turning to other capitals in Europe — and not necessarily to NATO or Washington — to avoid strategic retrenchment, while at the same time preserving an autonomous and sovereign defense policy. 

The good news is that some of the most catastrophic scenarios outlined before the publication of the document have been avoided. These included some 50,000 job cuts in the army and the same number in the national defense industry, as well as the sale of aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle. Instead, the Ministry of Defense will have to reduce its armed forces by 24,000, on top of an already-planned layoff of 10,000 civilians. Of particular concern, French deployable forces will go down in strength from 30,000 to 15,000. 

Despite these cuts, France will remain in the top tier of European military powers. But the cuts come just when more will be expected from France and its European partners amid U.S. strategic retrenchment, particularly in the Middle East and Africa. Given France’s role in the intervention in Mali and in the fragile Central African Republic, it is no surprise that the Middle East and Africa are given special treatment in the White Book. But questions remain as to whether France’s diminished capabilities will allow such wide-scale out-of-area operations in the future without the assistance of its European partners.

A partial answer can be found in the strong European dimension of the White Book. British and German officials were officially part of the committee tasked with the document’s drafting, and Poland’s government was also consulted. Paris is clearly intent on pursuing a pragmatic European approach to defense, one that involves not only London (the leading partner in the Libyan and Malian operations and a long-standing ally), but also Warsaw and hopefully Berlin playing stronger roles in the context of a multilateral “alliance of the able.” This approach, encompassed in the Weimar Plus framework (France, Germany, Poland, Italy, and Spain), is designed to bring a maximum number of partners, and therefore capabilities, to the table, in order to kick-start discussions about the new dynamics of defense cooperation. This vision, which Paris hopes will be shared throughout Europe, also includes calls for a common European strategic vision and threat assessment, in the form of a revision to the 2003 European White Book on Security. 

Paris is also adamant about pushing Europe’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) to the top of the agenda through decisions made by the European Council, while strengthening the more successful examples of European defense integration, such as the European Air Transport Command. Europeanization, ideally, would allow France and the continent’s other militaries to assume some security responsibilities from the United States, but at a lower cost. The best example of this would be France making an effort to fill capability gaps that the United States filled in Mali and Libya — including air-to-air refueling, electronic surveillance and warfare, unmanned aerial vehicles, and airlifting — and pooling them with its European partners. France’s initiative could fundamentally change the prospects of European security cooperation in the months leading up to December’s European Council meeting, where these issues will be discussed. However, the White Book also predicts this will be a slow and challenging process, as the EU still does not see itself as a regional — let alone global — security actor. 

Despite the pervasive theme of Europeanization in the White Book, the document does not endorse a geographic division of labor between Europe and the United States as the latter pivots to Asia. To the contrary, the White Book also underscores the need for France and its European partners to be engaged in Asia, which will be at the center of many future security challenges. The diversity and fluidity of security threats — from failed states, to cyber security, to the strategic implications of emerging powers — mean that France will have to act as a strategic actor beyond its periphery. But the harsh reality is that that challenge that will need to be met with significantly fewer capabilities and resources.