Promising a “more efficient, more modern and less expensive” military force, President Jacques Chirac on Thursday announced deep cuts in defense spending that will include the end of two centuries of conscription, which Napoleon called the “vitality and real foundation” of France.
The military shake-up, announced by Chirac in a televised interview, will bring France an all-volunteer army by 2002, streamline the nation’s nuclear forces, merge several important state-owned defense contractors and close dozens of bases.
It also will sharply reduce the size of France’s military force from about 500,000, currently the most of any Western European country, to 350,000 and slash the number of regiments from 124 to 85.
The president’s reform plan, and the certainty of job losses in the military and related industries, came as a shock to this nation, where nearly 12% of the work force is unemployed. More important was the decision to end conscription, which accounts for about 60% of the armed forces.
Many French agree with Napoleon, who said universal military service is essential to preserve national identity, providing a “school of civic values” and a vital link between the nation and its army.
Chirac tried to head off those critics, saying he will set up a commission to study the possibility of an obligatory or voluntary six-month “national civil service,” in which young men and women could work as police officers, firefighters or in humanitarian organizations.
But Chirac stated flatly that “France no longer needs to call young men for military service, and in six years it won’t be calling them anymore.” Currently, young men must complete 10 months of military duty.
Chirac cited both economic and military reasons for the streamlining, contending that the French military force was a bloated part of the national budget that was “completely unsuited and unable to effectively assume the missions that it must undertake.”
European analysts saw the reforms, the broadest in decades in France, as a long-delayed reaction to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the reunification of Germany.
In 1994, France spent 3.3% of its gross national product on defense, well above the North Atlantic Treaty Organization average of 2.5%. And, unlike most other Western nations, France’s defense spending has remained steady.
As part of the effort to economize, Chirac said France will stop producing plutonium and weapons-grade uranium for nuclear weapons, scrap its 18 land-based nuclear missiles and dismantle the Hades short-range mobile missile.
He added that the country’s nuclear force would rely for delivery on four missile-firing submarines as well as aircraft.