Jeffrey LewisFrench Nuclear Posture

In August, French President Nicolas Sarkozy initiated the drafting of a new white paper on defense and national security (Livre Blanc) under the direction of Jean-Claude Mallet. (The embassy has a recent progress report.)

Although we had lots of interesting off-the-record conversations about it while I was in Europe, Le Figaro has the most detailed description of the Livre Blanc.

The section on nuclear weapons is particularly interesting. France will retain aircraft delivered weapons as part of a “differentiated and complementary” force and tighten the language about nuclear use — expanded considerably by Chirac — to focus on the integrity of France’s territory and its neighbors.

Nucléaire. Dans ce domaine ultrasensible, on se dirige à la fois vers une certaine continuité et une correction de la doctrine. La « deuxième composante », celle des armes aéroportées, qui assure la dissuasion en complément de la force sous-marine, un temps sur la sellette, n’est apparemment pas menacée. Le maintien d’une stratégie de dissuasion reposant sur deux composantes, « différenciées et complémentaires », fait ainsi l’objet d’un large consensus. Par contre, la commission n’est « pas favorable » à l’extension du champ de la dissuasion au terrorisme d’origine étatique ou à nos voies d’approvisionnement stratégiques. Une petite « rupture » par rapport au discours de Jacques Chirac, qui avait évoqué pour la première fois ces sujets à l’Ile Longue, en janvier 2006. En revanche, il faut réfléchir avec précaution à l’inclusion de nos alliés européens dans nos « intérêts vitaux ».

At least, that’s what I can make out without being able to speak French.


  1. SQ

    “Tighten” is too gentle a term. It’s a pretty specific rejection of the Chirac Doctrine, unless my limited French has failed me.

    Here’s my best crack at it:

    Nuclear. In this ultra-sensitive area, both a measure of continuity and a modification of doctrine are necessary. The “second component,” that of airborne weapons, which provides deterrence in addition to the submarine force, does not appear vulnerable [idiom: when alerted?]. Maintaining a deterrence strategy based on two components, “differentiated and complementary,” remains a matter of broad consensus. However, the commission is “not favorable” to extending the scope of deterrence to state-sponsored terrorism or [threats to?] our strategic supply routes — a small “break” with the speech of Jacques Chirac, who raised these issues for the first time at l’Ile Longue in January 2006. Nevertheless, cautious consideration should be given to including our European allies among our “vital interests.”

  2. Eric Hundman (History)

    Based on the last setence you quote here, Jeffrey, France is looking to “think carefully” about including its European allies in its “vital interests.” It seems they’re still focusing on the integrity of France’s neighbors, but they may be reconsidering.

    I’m a bit unclear on the third major point made in this graf (that which follows “Par contre”), but it looks like the commission does not favor extending deterrence to state-based terrorism or to “our means of strategic supply.” I’m guessing this means they won’t try to use nuclear deterrence to defend states that are critical to France’s strategic needs, but my French is rusty and I’m not entirely confident of my translation. Any native speakers want to jump in?

    This all fits with a rather astonishingly narrow view of the usefulness of the French deterrent — I find it especially surprising given the argument for keeping nukes that occasionally comes out of both British and French nuclear experts: that Europe is better off with two local guarantors of deterrence.

  3. Haninah (History)

    Translation, for the French-impaired?

  4. Trent (History)

    Here’s the translation for you:

    Nuclear. In this very sensitive domain, we are heading towards a certain continuity as well as a correction of the doctrine. The “second component”, airborne weapons, which insures a complementaty deterance to the submarine forces, for a long time at the forefront, is not threatened. There is also a large concensus to maintain a deterance strategy that rests on two components, “differentiated and complementary”. However, the commission is “not favorable” towards extending the scope of deterance to state-sponsored terrorism or threats to strategic supply routes. A small “rupture” with Jacques Chirac’s speech, which brought forth these issues for the first time at L’Ile Longue, in January 2006. However, we must carefully reflect on including our european allies within our “vital interests”.

  5. Vladimir (History)

    Translation is a difficult art. The last sentence in French is not a lucid explanation even for a French.

  6. Rwendland (History)

    I’ve never come across a discussion of how possessing vulnerable nuclear power stations comes into deterrence theory. It seems to me that current generation nuclear power stations are vulnerable to a well-organised commando-style attack with modern man-portable weaponry. (probably beyond what NON-state sponsored terrorists could do) So using a small-scale nuclear first-strike against a state alleged to be involved with “state-sponsored terrorism” or a chemical-WMD threat may put you at significantly increased risk to a subsequent retaliation on your nuclear power stations. Of course France is highly vulnerable to this, as it has so many nuclear power stations. Could this be a valid consideration, or is this notion off-the-wall?

  7. Bruno (History)

    I would be cautious about anything in the news about the alleged contents of the White Paper. This is the time when rumours and disinformation are flying high. However, currently the White Paper is about half-baked (not unlike the baguette shown). Nobody knows what Sarkozy will end up deciding.

    As per nuclear power plants: the way French nuclear power plants are designed protects them fairly well against severe terrorist attacks. In other words: frankly, a terrorist attack resulting in radioactive fallout is an extreme, almost farfetched scenario.

    As per the Chirac scenario: this was designed to put any adversary on notice that a massive State-sponsored terrorist attack against the French territory might be covered by nuclear deterrence. With all the caveats about attribution, intel., etc.

  8. Valuethinker (History)


    Indeed the French Super Phenix breeder reactor was attacking with antitank missiles whilst under construction (wikipedia has a seemingly accurate account, including revelations about who committed the attack).

    Nuclear power stations are somewhat vulnerable. Anti tank missiles which can pierce the containment vessel are not that hard to come by (a warhead called a HESH for high explosive squash head would be optimal, rather than an armour-piercing shaped charge). But such might not cause a full meltdown.

    There are ancillary facilities which, if attacked, could cause chaos and contamination. In particular the ‘swimming pools’ where waste is stored.

    The real gold is if someone with shaped charge explosives, who knows what she is doing, gets inside the reactor containment vessel. The havoc could be huge, although the release of radiation to the outside world, in the short term, would not be large.

    Every nation has different arrangements for defending its nuclear reactors. My bet is in France, there will be gendarmerie, with sub machine pistols, gas masks etc. The French nuclear industry is a technological elite, and I suspect that applies to just about the entire industry top to bottom, even security.

    So in other countries a higher risk. It would be difficult to trigger a Chernobyl say in any country— only a handful still have the old Soviet RBMK graphite reactors with no containment vessel. Probably the former Soviet Union states are the most vulnerable, although perhaps some of the British or American reactors if the local law enforcement and security arrangements are sleepy.

    I think the CBO reviewed US nuclear plant security, and in a (classified) annex concluded that there were vulnerabilities to terrorist attack: a small group of determined men could get inside the main containment vessel.

    At the very least a determined attack by terrorists who didn’t care about their own threat, could make a real mess of the swimming pool, and contaminate everything downriver for a long time.

  9. Valuethinker (History)


    PS in a wartime situation, the lock down on nuclear power plants would be so severe no one would get close enough to do damage, without an air strike.


    I’m not fluent in French, but I do recall that the French are often quite deliberately ambiguous.

    Remember with French being deliberately slightly ambiguous (and so forcing the reader to understand by means of nuance) is part of the style of writing.

    It’s a much less direct culture than an Anglo-Saxon one, with a greater emphasis on saying by what is not said. That kind of literary style is admired.

  10. Rwendland (History)

    Valuethinker, in the UK all nuclear power stations are on the coast, so a real lock-down would require considerable naval resource. It strikes me this should be a consideration at some level in first-strike thinking.

    UK power station security certainly has been sleepy. In 2003 about 150 Greenpeace peaceful protesters breached the inner security barrier, and climbers got to the top of the secondary containment. In part they were making a point about nuclear security! This was the second time they had made this point, but on a smaller scale first time!!