- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

PARIS As the campaign for the French presidency unfolds, voters are getting a different picture of their armed forces than that glittering annual parade every July 14 on Bastille Day.
Both leading candidates President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin are being attacked for "the great misery of our army." As president, Mr. Chirac is commander in chief, but funding the military is the domain of Mr. Jospin's Cabinet.
"Does France really have means commensurate with its ambitions?" questioned the conservative daily Le Figaro.
Critics among the presidential candidates point out that during the past 10 years, France's defense budget has dropped from 3 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) to 1.8 percent. While the army, navy and air force ask for an additional $460 million this year, the government intends to cut defense spending by $350 million.
Jacques Baumel, vice president of the Defense Committee in the National Assembly, drew a grim picture of the armed forces:
"An aircraft carrier suffering too many breakdowns, construction of a second one essential to our security postponed, aging helicopters, cruise missiles expected [to be available] only in eight years, and a constant decrease in the budget."
Pierre Lelouche, another member of the Defense Committee, charged that the government, "not satisfied with perpetrating its mistakes, is closing its eyes to the lessons of September 11."
Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a Socialist former defense minister and now a presidential candidate, said that Mr. Chirac's decision to turn the armed force into an all-volunteer professional force "neglected the defense of national territory and the protection of the civilian population, and concentrates mainly on foreign [military] operations."
Moreover, he added, "the president seems to have come to the conclusion that it is time to rejoin the military organization of NATO." France withdrew its forces from NATO's command in 1964, but has remained a political member of the alliance.
In addition to statements intended to liven up the presidential debate, perhaps even more alarming signals have come from the army itself.
According to one report submitted to the Defense Ministry, "the army is suffering from the indifference, if not disdain, demonstrated by the political powers."
Gen. Philippe Mercier, a former army chief of staff, wrote in an "open letter" published by the leftist daily Liberation that "the finance minister is putting all his efforts into the reduction of the military budget."
To quell the growing dissatisfaction within the armed forces, the government has prepared a plan for changing military pay and granting an additional week's vacation per year.
The government is also facing a critical report on the progress of the European "rapid intervention corps," which some consider controversial and to a great extent duplicating NATO's role.
According to the report, revealed to the French media, "The European Union has yet to agree on how to share military responsibilities, expenses and command positions. It is the barest minimum for a Europe intending to play a strong role vis-a-vis America and Russia."


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