James ActonAn Unexpected Speech

Just over a week ago I arrived in Paris for a weekend away, went to my hotel and (while my room was being prepared) went to use the lobby ‘facilities’. On the wall was Le Figaro with the headline ‘Sarkozy to relaunch nuclear disarmament’. You could have knocked me over with a feather. I was not expecting it at all. Jeffrey has already discussed the speech; I (somewhat tardily) want to talk a bit about the background.

France was the last weapon state to join the NPT in August 1992. I was trying to find some good background on what prompted this French volte-face, but can find remarkably little about it. (Yes, I know the end of the Cold War was not unrelated but I want to know about the domestic politics of the decision—can any Wonk readers point me in the right direction?) Anyway, at the 2000 Review Conference, France very reluctantly signed onto the 13 Steps Agreement (their ambassador apparently became persona non grata in Paris as a result) and, like the other weapon states, was happy to step back from it subsequently.

Let’s fast forward to last year’s Carnegie Conference and Margaret Beckett’s speech. Suffice to say that the French (like the Americans) were not happy. Actually, I’m not sure ‘unhappy’ is the right word. It might be more accurate to say that some corners of the French civil service thought their British cousins had gone insane. The French were worried that by playing up disarmament and raising expectations, more stress would be placed on the NPT later when those expectations went unfulfilled. Moreover, I believe the French were less convinced than the British that non-nuclear weapon states’ position on disarmament reflects a genuine grievance rather than a negotiating position.

Anyway, last year Sarkozy commissioned a new livre blanc (white paper) on defence. It’s being written by a fairly small circle centred on Jean-Claude Mallet and there is genuine uncertainty about what it will contain (Jeffrey has found the same thing). However, I had been warned repeatedly not to expect France to embrace the ‘disarmament agenda’. Hence my surprise about the following (it seems worth quoting the whole of the relevant section):

I would now like to address disarmament. It is a subject I would like to discuss with realism and clear-sightedness. When international security improves, France draws the consequences. It did so with the end of the Cold War.

Rather than making speeches and promises that are not translated into deeds, France acts. We respect our international commitments, and notably the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. France has an exemplary record, unique in the world, with respect to nuclear disarmament. France was the first State, with the United Kingdom, to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; the first State to decide to shut down and dismantle its facilities for the production of fissile materials for explosive purposes; the only State to have transparently dismantled its nuclear testing facility in the Pacific; the only State to have dismantled its ground-launched nuclear missiles; the only State to have voluntarily reduced the number of its nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines by a third.

France has never engaged in the arms race. France never manufactured all the types of weapons that it was technologically capable of designing. France applies a principle of strict sufficiency: It maintains its arsenal at the lowest possible level compatible with the strategic context. I am dedicated to this principle. As soon as I assumed my duties, I asked for this strict sufficiency to be reassessed.

This has led me to decide on a new measure of disarmament. With respect to the airborne component, the number of nuclear weapons, missiles and aircraft will be reduced by one-third.

I have also decided that France could and should be more transparent with respect to its nuclear arsenal than anyone ever has been.

After this reduction, I can tell you that our arsenal will include fewer than 300 nuclear warheads. That is half of the maximum number of warheads we had during the Cold War.

In giving this information, France is completely transparent because it has no other weapons beside those in its operational stockpile.

Furthermore, I can confirm that none of our weapons are targeted against anyone.

Finally, I have decided to invite international experts to observe the dismantlement of our Pierrelatte and Marcoule military fissile material production facilities.

But let us not be naïve; the very basis of collective security and disarmament is reciprocity.

Today, eight nations in the world have declared they have conducted nuclear tests. I am proposing to the international community an action plan to which I call on the nuclear powers to resolutely commit by the 2010 NPT Conference.

Thus I invite all countries to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, beginning with China and the United States, who signed it in 1996. It is time for it to be ratified.

I urge the nuclear powers to dismantle all their nuclear testing sites in a manner that is transparent and open to the international community;

I call for the immediate launching of negotiations on a treaty to ban the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons purposes, and to establish without delay a moratorium on the production of such materials;

I invite the five nuclear weapon States recognized by the NPT to agree on transparency measures;

I propose opening negotiations on a treaty banning short- and intermediate-range surface-to-surface missiles;

I ask all nations to accede to and implement the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, as France has done.

At the same time, the entire international community must mobilize in all other fields of disarmament. Here too, France will make its contribution.

The crucial point about this speech is not any of the specific measures announced by Mr Sarkozy (welcome as they are). It is the fact that a French President is talking publicly using the ‘D word’ in this way. French policy has undergone a very significant shift.

Part of it, I suspect, is frustration that the UK has been getting a lot of credit for its disarmament initiative and France, not unreasonably, wants a piece of the action (especially as French disarmament credentials are, in relative terms at least, pretty strong). Indeed, a number of the comments made by Monsieur le President are clearly (friendly-ish) digs towards the UK and the US.

I also wonder whether the British-French nuclear deal has anything to do with it. There has undoubtedly been a lot of high-level nuclear diplomacy across the Channel in recent weeks and it’s possible (though not all that likely) that the UK indicated it would feel more comfortable buying reactors off a state that was promoting all aspects of the NPT (not, of course, that the UK has decided which reactors to buy yet… oh no.)

As for the policies themselves, China will make it clear very shortly (if it has not already done so) that confidence-building measures are OK but transparency is a non-non. The missile control proposal is pretty bold but ties in with Russian interest in expanding the INF. However, most interesting for me is Sarkozy’s promise that France will allow inspectors into Pierrelatte and Marcoule (I wonder if this is a rather subtle dig at the Americans over FMCT verification). It’ll be interesting to see who these international inspectors are (Euratom? IAEA?) and what kind of access they’re given.


  1. Kerbihan

    James, you’re on the mark – except on the civilian nuclear deal.

    There was frustration about the fact that the Brits were doing a dog and pony show about nuclear disarmament to make it easier to accept the Trident renewal (notwithstanding the real commitment by some such as Beckett).

    The French believe that they have done a lot in 1995-1996 and that they are not always credited for it.

    There was also frustration in French circles about the fact that the US has a reputation of being “tranparent” whereas it does not say much publicly about the total size of its arsenal.

    Finally, note the reference to “extreme circumstances of self-defense” (that’s how the text should have been translated), a nod to the 1996 ICJ advisory opinion – even though the sentence is deliberately truncated (no reference to “the survival of the State”).

  2. Lao Tao Ren (History)

    One of the more fascinating parts of the disarmament puzzle is that China do not see that the North Korean Bomb threatens them more than it does the US, and acting accordingly.

    Do you think it premature for France and Britain to start thinking of fielding a pan-European Nuclear deterrent to be phased in, say, in 20 years?

    That is just about the time when the current SSBNs need to be replaced.

  3. James Acton (History)

    Lao Tao Ren:

    Whether or not a pan European deterrent would be a good idea, I think it exceedingly unlikely. This is partly because it might contravene article I of the NPT, but mostly because Britain and France just aren’t going to share their toys with one another!

  4. Kerbihan

    Hm. James, neither France nor the UK is interested in transferring nuclear weapons to non-nuclear EU States. But the French have traditionnally been fairly opened to some form of Europeanization of their own deterrent. The latest example is the Sarkozy speech.

    Whenever a common European deterrent has been discussed in well-informed circles, it has always been either in the shape of a pooling of French and British forces, and/or in NATO-like arrangements, in a more distant future. (Remember the German and Italian reservations to NPT ratification?)

    Whether or not NATO-like arrangements are in violation of the NPT is an old issue; I don’t think that the legal case is very strong on the side of those who argue that they do violate the NPT.

  5. Rwendland (History)

    UK and France are unlikely to share their toys because the school prefect probably would not allow the UK to do so, as its toys are largely designed by the US. As the recently released 1974 CIA Proliferation SNIE notes (para 112, page 40) “In many cases [Britain’s sensitive technology in nuclear and missile fields] is based on technology received from the US and could not legitimately be passed on without US permission.”

    The UK National Audit Office 1987 Trident report noted that most of the UK Trident warhead development and production expenditure was incurred in the US who would supply “certain warhead-related components”. So almost certainly this US restriction applies to the current UK toy. UK “independent deterrent” anyone??