PARIS — A report that France may soon jettison its Cold War-era policy of nuclear deterrence for a more U.S.-style, proactive doctrine sparked confusion and sharp debate yesterday, at a time when fears about the capacities of international terrorists and rogue nations are growing.
France’s left-leaning Liberation newspaper reported that President Jacques Chirac would soon announce a “full revolution” of France’s nuclear program.
“Without citing any country, the French ‘force de frappe’ nonetheless targets what Americans describe as rogue nations,” reported Liberation, citing an unnamed senior military official. “In the longer term, it will take into account the threat of China, qualified as a distant scenario.”
The front-page article was quickly denied by the Elysee presidential palace, which announced France remained committed to its traditional philosophy of nuclear deterrence — that is, presuming a nation would not attack because it would then face overwhelming military retaliation. The decades-old doctrine was shaped by former French war hero-turned-president, Charles de Gaulle.
If the report is true, the French shift would echo a policy change formulated by the Bush administration in 2002. But while U.S.-style pre-emptive policy might consider attacks against both suspected terrorists and hostile states possessing weapons of mass destruction, Liberation reported that the Paris formula only targets rogue nations.
French officials yesterday cited a series of statements made in recent months and years, including a 2001 address by Mr. Chirac. “Our nuclear forces are directed against no country, and we have always refused the chance that nuclear weapons could be considered a battle weapon employed in a military strategy,” the president said at the time.
“Nothing has changed at all,” said Jean-Francois Bureau, a spokesman for the Defense Ministry, in a telephone interview. “If anything, we’ve underscored our strategy of deterrence.”
But noted expert Francois Heisbourg suggested that a shift in French strategy began last year with little fanfare.
“Why it took Liberation more than a year to notice it, is in itself an interesting question,” said Mr. Heisbourg, who heads the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris. “Whether they’ve been spun that way or just woke up one morning thinking that way, I don’t know.”
According to Liberation, the French government is priming its public for the policy shift through a series of public statements, including October remarks by Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin that French “nuclear forces are adapted to deal with diverse scenarios of extortion and threat.”
“For the first time,” the newspaper reported, “nuclear forces aren’t only targeting states with atomic weapons, but powers capable of using chemical or biological weapons against France.”
Liberation says preparations for the new pre-emption doctrine began in 2001 and were backed by new and costly military investments.
A 2003-2008 blueprint for defense spending earmarks $17 billion for nuclear development. The French parliament is expected to pass the five-year military budget in early November.
The extensive document was published in September 2002 and is available on the French Defense Ministry’s Web site (https://www.defense.gouv.fr/actualities/dossier/d140/index.htm). It emphasizes the concept of a pre-emptive French defense, signaling a move away from a deterrence-only policy.
“Nuclear deterrence remains our fundamental guarantee,” it says at one point. “At the same time, the general military strategy includes actions of pre-emption, protection and action-pre-emption to face, with necessary flexibility, other types of threats.”
Outside France, the document says at another point, “we must identify and prevent threats as early as possible. In this framework, the possibility of pre-emptive action can be considered, once an explicit threat … is recognized.”
“The French policy over the last 40 years has been centered on nuclear deterrence, and on force projection,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “When you put pre-emptive action up there, on about the same level, it’s obviously not a minor thing.”
Nonetheless, the defense document went “essentially unnoticed” when it was published last year, Mr. Heisbourg said.