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France is skeptical about the current debate about the abolition of nuclear weapons. But it has not been inactive on the disarmament front. Since the end of the cold war, it has taken a number of concrete steps in that direction: it has reduced its arsenal by approximately 50 percent, it has dismantled its test site in the South Pacific (near Tahiti), it has ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), it has dismantled its fissile material production facilities for nuclear weapons (Pierrelatte and Marcoule), and it has actively supported the swift conclusion of a fissile material cut-off treaty (FMCT).
More recently, in a landmark speech delivered on March 21, 2008, French President Nicolas Sarkozy put forward a broad plan for disarmament, France’s first since 1991. In addition to announcing increased transparency on its nuclear disarmament activities, President Sarkozy indicated that French nuclear forces would be further reduced and that France would soon possess no more than 300 nuclear warheads.
That being said, there is no denying that France tends to favor non-proliferation over disarmament. This is because it firmly believes that disarmament and proliferation are not co-dependent or the two sides of the same coin. In other words, France holds the view that no amount of disarmament will ever solve the proliferation problem.
As French representative Eric Danon pointed out at the Third Preparatory Committee for the 2010 Review Conference (RevCon) of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that took place in New York in May 2009, “It is not by eliminating more nuclear weapons that we will convince countries in breach of their commitments to abide by them.” Similarly, at the now famous September 2009 UN Security Council Summit where US President Barack Obama sought to advance the vision of a world free of nuclear weapons that he had developed in his Prague speech just five months earlier, French President Sarkozy made a point to stress that ambitious disarmament plans for the future were very laudable, but that the international community should first and foremost focus on addressing proliferation crises, notably the pressing Iranian and North Korean nuclear crises. As Sarkozy put it, “the present comes before the future, and the present includes two major nuclear crises.”
As a consequence, it should come as no surprise that France’s non-proliferation policy, much more so than its disarmament policy, ranks very high in its policy priorities. In fact, France believes that non-proliferation is absolutely central to its special responsibilities (as a permanent member of the UN Security Council and a recognized nuclear weapon state [NWS] by the NPT) to preserve and strengthen international peace and security. As defined in the June 2008 Livre Blanc sur la Défense et la Sécurité Nationale (French White Paper on Defense and National Security), France’s first defense white paper since June 1994, this action is essentially articulated around the three following main pillars:
- The universal application and comprehensive implementation of the main international conventions of the non-proliferation regime endorsed by the great majority of states;
- Vigorous action at the suppliers––export controls––level; and
- Determined operational cooperation in other more recent non-proliferation frameworks and initiatives.
This article provides an in-depth analysis of France’s current non-proliferation policy through the lenses of these three main pillars. It is strictly focused on French policies with regard to nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons as well as missile delivery systems and does not address the case of conventional weapons, which deserves a separate analysis.