- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 19, 2003

PARIS — This year’s brilliant Bastille Day parade delighted the French with precision marching and freshly painted armored vehicles, but it was seen by some as camouflage for France’s significant military difficulties.

The conservative Paris daily Le Figaro described the situation as the “long march toward a new army.”

The spectacular display Monday led to a national debate on how effective the country’s “new army” really is.

Although Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie praised the army’s recent transformation, some French commentators and senior cadres remain skeptical.

French newspapers quoted an unnamed general as saying: “Our materiel is insufficient. We have nothing that moves satisfactorily. And whatever you say, I know we didn’t go to Iraq because of that fact.”

Officials invariably point to the positive side of the shift in the armed forces from the draft to an all-volunteer army, navy and air force — now in its third year.

The number of units has been drastically reduced; army divisions have become brigades. But despite budgetary restrictions, equipment is on order.

However, one military source said, “We have to realize that our armed forces are far from being equipped with state-of-the-art material comparable to that of the Americans or even the British.”

Military sources say orders for weapons are behind schedule, citing Giat Industries, which manufactures the highly regarded Leclerc tank, and Panhard, which makes light armor.

It is said that the firms give priority to deliveries for Arab countries, particularly the United Arab Emirates.

To equip up-to-date brigades of 6,000 personnel capable of quick intervention in “brush-fire wars,” one general said, the shortage of modern equipment is such that “to ready one brigade for action, the weapons of five others have to be cannibalized.”

Whatever the difficulties, France has sent army and air force units to NATO deployments in Bosnia and Macedonia, and, for the United Nations, to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Its Foreign Legion and army paratroops intervened in the conflict in Ivory Coast and served in Afghanistan.

Still, officials acknowledge that this year’s defense budget of about $15 billion, up 11 percent from 2002, is not sufficient to modernize the army and deploy its elements in far-flung places. Per capita defense spending in France is $800, compared with more than $1,000 in the United States.

Although plans call for the ability to muster 50,000 troops for crisis intervention, officials say that if the government had agreed to join the coalition against Saddam Hussein, the French contribution could not have exceeded 5,000 troops.

Mrs. Alliot-Marie, the defense minister, argues that the military transformation into an all-volunteer force was a great success and that 30,000 young French men and women volunteer every year. More and more women are joining, she says, and the army’s aim is to raise their number to 12 percent of the nearly 300,000 personnel.

However, army sources complain of slow recruitment of qualified personnel, citing in particular computer-literate candidates.

Old army leaders also say that with the recent reductions in strength, the armed forces will soon lack adequate trained reserves and that the “links between the army and the nation” are weakening.

A frequently expressed opinion is that many of the volunteers serve for pay and not for their country.

The public at large is barely aware that there are any problems with the military, and the nearly 4,000 troops and 350 tanks, jeeps and other vehicles on display for Bastille Day as 70 warplanes roared overhead could hardly have looked better to a layman.

The shortcomings exist in every branch of the armed forces, and particularly in the much-publicized “Eurocorps” of the European Union — a French idea. A small detachment of 150 Eurocorps troops led Monday’s holiday parade along the Champs Elysees, under the command of a German, Gen. Holger Kammerhoff.

The July 14 celebration commemorates the 1789 storming of the Bastille, a medieval fortress used as a prison and symbolizing the king’s might, by a Paris mob, beginning the revolution that overthrew the monarchy and created the French republic.

Five EU member nations out of 15 have so far agreed to provide troops to the Eurocorps. France, Germany, Belgium, Spain and Luxembourg, have agreed, though Luxembourg has only a token military force.

Strong opposition to the Eurocorps idea has come from Britain, Italy and various NATO members, who say it duplicates the aims and tasks of the alliance.

France, a political member of NATO but not of its military arm, says the Eurocorps would offer its services to NATO when it becomes operational with 60,000 troops.

At its headquarters in the French border city of Strasbourg, officers say that different military traditions and concepts have yet to be overcome. To facilitate contacts among its multinational components, English — the main language of none of its five members — was chosen as the “operational language” of Eurocorps.


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