France's Nuclear Deterrent

September 11, 1995|By WILLIAM PFAFF

PARIS — Paris. -- France's nuclear test in the Pacific has blown up in the face of President Jacques Chirac and his government, but this is unlikely to cause more than a shortening of the test series, programmed as eight.

The scale of the global reaction, and particularly its violent synthesis with the independence movement in Tahiti (representing some 15 percent of the electorate), clearly was unexpected in Paris. But Mr. Chirac is a man of his own mind. When he was younger he was called ''The Bulldozer.''

Some 59 percent of the French are against these nuclear tests (but 60 percent approve of France's nuclear deterrent submarines, bomber squadrons and missile fields, suggesting that, as usual, the public is inconsistent in what it wants).

Whether the French military really need these underground tests to verify their latest submarine missile warhead, and calibrate their own-design weapons for future simulation tests, is hotly debated in Paris, as elsewhere.

French authorities in recent days have been arguing that the French nuclear force should in the future become the deterrent for the Eurocorps nations (France, Germany, Spain, and Belgium) or for the European Union itself. Most of France's fellow-Europeans, opposed to these tests, are unpersuaded, or cynical about the idea, but in Germany there has been a cautious, or polite, expression of interest.

A formal proposal on how this Europeanization of the French deterrent might be accomplished was promised by Mr. Chirac in a talk last week to French diplomats. There are grave problems in how to organize it. Some talk of European officers joining the French nuclear command, or of putting a European officer on every French submarine, to hold the second of the two launch keys.

A German Christian Democratic deputy, head of the disarmament commission of his party, Froedbert Pfluger, has said that while Germany would not want co-decision, as Germany intends to remain totally non-nuclear, a European equivalent of the NATO Nuclear Planning Group might be set up to develop nuclear doctrine, consider threat scenarios and propose methods for intergovernmental consultation and decision.

He acknowledged that in a world with Saddam Husseins in power (or generals like Ratko Mladic of the Bosnian Serbs), and with Vladimir Zhirinovsky and other belligerent nationalists and expansionists bidding for power in Russia, a nuclear deterrent force is a reassuring thing to have around. ''We have lived until now under the American nuclear umbrella. We want to keep it. But a second French umbrella, smaller but very effective, is welcome.'' He later mentions ''the isolationist tendencies which exist in the United States.''

Much the same argument is made by the eminent German commentator Christoph Bertram, former head of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, who added that ''the Bonn government should stop hiding behind Greenpeace, and should make sure that these French concessions, made under pressure,'' are actually exploited.

However the old problem of extended deterrence inevitably arises -- the implausibility of any deterrent that rests on the proposition that the French would risk or sacrifice Paris to punish an attack on Berlin or Brussels.

Perhaps the French would -- but not, I think, unless there was total conviction in France that unless they did so the consequences for France would be even worse: as they might be, in certain conceivable scenarios. But the reason France itself has a nuclear deterrent force today is that General DeGaulle could not believe that the United States would sacrifice Washington to avenge an attack on Paris.

William Pfaff is a syndicated columnist.

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