France without conscription Chirac order: Universal service a tradition since 1798, now too expensive.

March 03, 1996

AFTER THE SOVIET COLLAPSE, the U.S., Britain and (West) Germany reduced their military expenditure, armaments and manpower. France did not. It retained a vision of grandeur, along with a cultural nationalism that has no counterpart in American political life.

Now President Jacques Chirac has determined to bring France militarily into the 21st Century, if not the 20th. He will end the draft, introduced by Napoleon Bonaparte 198 years ago and steadily in effect since 1905, by the year 2002. Military forces will be reduced from 500,000 to 350,000. Land-based nuclear missiles will be phased out, nuclear fuel production ended and the nuclear deterrent shifted to four new submarines bristling with missiles able to hit targets 3,500 miles away.

France has partially rejoined military participation in NATO. The new force structure would be flexible and able to operate worldwide, no longer designed primarily to repel invaders from France. This is not the end of French neo-imperialism, but its modernization. The 12,400 French troops currently in African and Indian Ocean nations would remain in place.

One motive for reform is effectiveness. A second is to help reduce deficits to qualify the franc for merger with the Deutsche mark into a European currency. It takes political courage, with 12 percent unemployment, to cut back the defense industry and military forces, especially after the labor unrest last year.

Preparing for foreign missions without a draft puts pressures on Germany, which retains conscription while restricting its forces to home territory. But the big change is in French culture. Universal service was meant to create patriotism, unity and duty, even though young men could avoid strictly military service through police or hospital work or teaching French abroad. President Chirac announced a study that may propose non-military national service for young men and women.

France has learned that the military cannot afford a fair draft. National service was already down to 10 months. A French expedition into Rwanda or Bosnia relies on career professionals. The opposition denounced the plan as national weakness, but President Chirac knows it is the only way to retain strength through relevance to modern challenges.

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