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Chirac Pushes Plan to Cut Back French Army, Eliminate Draft

By William Drozdiak
The Washington Post

President Jacques Chirac went on national television Thursday night to outline a plan for the most drastic overhaul of this country's armed forces in nearly four decades, including the scrapping of all land-based nuclear missiles and creation of a leaner, volunteer army capable of projecting power far beyond French borders.

In a startling break with tradition for a country that has long cherished national military service, Chirac declared that over the next six years France would abolish conscription and establish a professional army that would be smaller, much more mobile and cheaper to maintain. The new force will be designed to counter distant threats to European stability rather than merely to shield French territory.

Citing the extraordinary transformation of Europe's strategic environment in the post-Cold War era, Chirac said that as commander in chief of the military he recognized that the armed forces must be radically reshaped for the first time since the Algerian War of the 1950s and early '60s to meet potential conflicts in the 21st century.

Insisting that the current half-million-member military is "excessive and ponderous," Chirac said he is confident that the number could be safely cut to no more than 350,000, at considerable savings to the government.

At the same time, Chirac made clear that French forces must become more flexible to meet new deployment requirements. "We must learn the lessons of the wars in the (Persian) Gulf and in Bosnia, where we were not able to assume our responsibilities," Chirac said. France could muster barely 10,000 troops in response to each of those crises, and Chirac said that in the future five to six times that number would be needed to defend vital national interests that may be jeopardized by conflicts in faraway theaters.

In abandoning two centuries of strategic doctrine focused primarily on protecting French soil, Chirac reaffirmed his conviction that friendship with Germany is permanent, that Moscow's aggressive intentions toward the West are gone and that future challenges to French interests lie along an explosive regional periphery - notably in the Balkans and North Africa.

Since Chirac took office last May, France has ended its 30-year refusal to participate in NATO's military command and called for a more equal partnership with the United States in the Atlantic alliance. Chirac believes that with French borders now safe, France should be prepared to take the lead in helping make Europe more secure through use of a rapid intervention force that could snuff out small brush-fire wars around the continent.

Chirac acknowledged that his plan to abolish conscription had caused consternation in Germany and that some French troops stationed at NATO bases there would be brought home over Bonn's objections. But he offered to sustain French participation in Eurocorps - a large-scale military detachment created last year as an experimental embryo of a European army, with units from France, Germany and other European Union members.

He also vowed to uphold French promises to eliminate all land-based nuclear weapons and concentrate the world's third-biggest nuclear arsenal on missiles that could be launched from submarines and airplanes. Germany had long criticized the placement of short-range missiles on the Albion plateau in eastern France-missiles intended to help repel a Soviet invasion of Western Europe but could only reach German territory.

The biggest impact of the reforms, however, will undoubtedly be felt at home. Chirac promised that as many regiments and military bases are demobilized the government would do whatever possible to minimize the economic consequences in affected regions.

Chirac's proposal has already generated heated debate within the French military, evoking strong opposition among those officers who believe that the required 10 months of compulsory service helped nurture common values. Former defense minister Francois Leotard said he fears that moving toward a professional army would divorce soldiers from the rest of society.

But proponents of the change point to the success of all-volunteer armies in the United States and Britain, and they argue that forcing young people to serve in the military drags down army morale and fighting skills.

A parliamentary report estimates that even though professional soldiers would have to be paid higher salaries, the country could save as much as $2.8 billion.