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News | April 1, 2012

Cross-currents in French Defense and U.S. Interests

By Leo G. Michel Strategic Perspectives 10


Executive Summary

France is the only European ally—except for the United Kingdom (UK)—that regards its military capabilities, operational performance, and defense industry as vital levers to exert global influence. While the French believe strongly in their need to preserve “strategic independence,” they see new challenges in the evolving international security environment that will oblige them to accept greater cooperation with others, even in areas once considered too sensitive to discuss. Although some French strategists remain uncomfortable with the notion of closer defense ties with the United States, others ask whether there might be a greater danger ahead: specifically, if Europe’s strength dissipates as America “rebalances” toward the Asia-Pacific region, where does France turn to find capable and willing partners to protect its security interests?

The Libyan conflict in 2011 brought to light many of the cross-currents that are shaping French defense policy. French leaders are proud of their military’s performance in Libya, which many view as having validated President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision in early 2009 on France’s return to full participation in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) military structures. But the conflict also exposed Europe’s continuing dependence on U.S. military capabilities, reinforced France’s lack of confidence in Germany and the European Union as serious military partners, and increased its determination to improve defense cooperation with the United Kingdom.

Despite some downsizing, France has resisted the dramatic cuts in defense spending and capabilities under way elsewhere in Europe. If Sarkozy wins the presidential election on May 6, 2012, he can be expected to continue many elements of the transformation strategy launched by his government’s June 2008 White Book on Defense and National Security. If the Socialist Party challenger, François Hollande, wins, he will reassure leaders at the NATO Summit in Chicago (May 20–21, 2012) that France will maintain its nuclear deterrent and participation in NATO military structures. But reductions in the defense budget are likely whether Sarkozy or Hollande wins.

There will be opportunities for expanded U.S.-French and perhaps U.S.-UK-French defense cooperation under a Sarkozy or Hollande administration. But Paris and Washington will need to manage tensions related to their respective defense industries. For the United States, more is at stake than the health of the French defense establishment. France’s policies, capabilities, and operational commitments can play an important role in shaping those of many other Europeans. By working even more closely with its oldest ally, the United States can help ensure the credibility and effectiveness of the Alliance as a whole.