French President Nicolas Sarkozy pledged in June that France will "remain a great military power" when he endorsed the wide-ranging reforms contained in the White Book on Defense and National Security, which he had commissioned. The next day a group of general officers, writing anonymously in Le Figaro, condemned the exercise as "amateurish" and "incoherent" and warned that it "cannot mask the downgrading of our military in a more dangerous world." What, mon Dieu, is happening?
The rhetorical volleys are part of transformation à la française—the complex, costly and humbling process of modernizing the defense structures, capabilities and international engagements of the only European ally (except, perhaps, the United Kingdom) that aspires to be a global actor able to act independently, if needed, to defend its interests. Few disagree on the threat assessment in the White Book, or on the broad contours of French strategy. Instead the debate, at its core, revolves around a more prosaic issue: money. Sarkozy pledges not to reduce the defense budget—now €37 billion, including pensions, or about 2 percent of GDP. But he cannot afford to increase it before 2012. Far-reaching organizational reforms planned by his Defense minister are intended to free up credits for investment in new capabilities, including expensive programs to upgrade space-based intelligence systems. Yet even when coupled with the projected consolidation of some 450 military bases, which have already provoked protests, the promised savings from such reforms will fall short.
The White Book's plan to cut personnel is drawing particularly heavy fire from the Army. Over the next six to seven years, Sarkozy intends to reduce the Army from 157,000 people (including 26,000 civilians) to 131,000. Navy and Air Force ranks will also be thinned, by 11 percent and 24 percent, respectively. The president's assurance that such cuts will not degrade operational commitments in Afghanistan, the Balkans, Africa and Lebanon has not convinced his generals. Indeed, some privately complained of overstretching and inadequate equipment even before he promised in April to dispatch 700 soldiers to reinforce NATO in increasingly dangerous eastern Afghanistan. In May, a respected retired general, Jean-Claude Thomann, observed ruefully in Le Monde that "while our American and British friends, learning the lessons of operations for which they are paying in blood, step up their defense effort to benefit their land forces, we are preparing to take the opposite course." In their critique in Le Figaro, the anonymous officers fumed: "We are abandoning Europe's military leadership to the British, who, everyone knows, have a special relationship with the U.S. From now on, France will play in the same league as Italy."
The debate over resources is inextricably linked to Sarkozy's plan to increase France's role in NATO. He has reiterated his intent to "reintegrate" France into the NATO military structures, a step supported by his top military leaders but worrisome to others who fear that scarce euros might be diverted from their national budget to finance Alliance programs. To counter this, Sarkozy has acknowledged the need to educate the public on France's substantial role in other parts of the Alliance, where it ranks among the top troop contributors to NATO operations and ranks fifth in terms of funding contributions to NATO budgets. At the same time, to counter influential voices in the political class (on both the right and the left) who are ideologically opposed to any rapprochement with NATO, Sarkozy emphasized his intention to strengthen European defense during France's EU presidency, beginning July 1, as a "precondition" to boosting its NATO presence.
Indeed, the White Book outlines a robust agenda for the EU, including rejuvenated efforts to build a 60,000-strong intervention force, buy new air transports and refuelers and reinforce "autonomous" planning capabilities. Washington, for its part, no longer snipes at EU defense efforts, even if it differs on some details. Sarkozy's dilemma, though, is that it might be harder to rally EU members to do more when his own defense establishment is perceived as "hitting the wall." Senior French military officers have hinted at precisely that problem. Gen. Henri Bentégeat, former chief of the defense staff (CEMA) and now chairman of the EU military committee, acknowledged in December that in terms of European forces available for overseas interventions, "we are close to the limit, not in theoretical capacity but in acceptability by the public and financial responsibility." Gen. Jean-Louis Georgelin, the current CEMA, stated in May: "We have a pressing obligation to build European defense, but make no mistake, it will involve more costs than savings for a long time to come."
What if European defense demonstrably stalls? Sarkozy's anti-NATO critics will remind him of his "precondition," while others will pile on by asking: "Why are we sending more officers to NATO when we're closing bases at home?" Sarkozy promised at NATO's summit in April that he would "conclude" the process of transforming France's relations with the Alliance at its 60th-anniversary summit next spring. If the past few weeks are any indication, he will need to work even harder to keep that rendezvous.