How Will France Defend Itself? An Analysis of the French National Security Strategy
“To arms, citizens; form your battalions, Let us march, let us march! Let an impure blood water our fields!” The thought police of political correction routinely condemn such expressions of epistemic violence today as reactionary. But these particular words belong to nothing less than the French national anthem and encapsulate the glorification of state power and even state violence at the heart of French grand strategy. They also inspired the name of La République En Marche!, the political party of French President Emmanuel Macron, who has commissioned an historic review of that grand strategy.
The “Draft Budget, 2018: Defense, Memory, Culture and Ties with the Nation, Veterans” (Projet de loi de finances, 2018: Défense, mémoire, culture et liens avec la Nation, anciens combattants, Sept., 2017) of the French Ministry of the Armed Forces is roughly comparable to the American National Security Strategy (2017) or to the British National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review (2015). It builds upon the French defense and national security white paper of 2013, but results directly from a request by President Macron to Minister of Armed Forces Florence Parly to furnish a new military planning act (loi de programmation militaire) for 2018–25. Concerned respectively with defense policy, armed forces historical preservation, and what in the United States would be described as veterans affairs, it sees French defense spending increase from about 40.8 billion euros in 2017 to 42.8 billion euros in 2018, with increases projected to continue through 2025.
Part one, which is of greatest interest to policymakers in the United States, summarizes the present state and future direction of French military operations. France remains deployed in Polynesia, the Caribbean, parts of West Africa, and several other areas of old colonial interest. In these places, the French provide stability to governments and engage in counter-revolutionary actions that, despite their violence, seldom land in the major newspapers. Most of the French army’s current engagements are designed to address new and growing threats, including confronting Islamists in West Africa (Op. Barkhane: 4,000 soldiers), assisting the Iraqi government in its struggle with Islamic State or Daesh (Op. Chammal: 1,200 soldiers), or combating human traffickers in the Mediterranean (Op. EUNAVFOR Med Sophia).
Emphasizing the importance of traditional deterrence (dissuasion, 1.2), the French created a cybercommand last year and deployed 300 troops to Estonia, with Lithuania to follow this year. New administrative measures ordered by the president are also designed to render French military service more accommodating of family life and to combat sexual harassment. The assault rifle Heckler & Koch HK 416—introduced last May—is to soon become the weapon of choice for the entire French military. Seal Team 6 employed this German-manufactured weapon to kill Osama bin Laden, and it is utilized by many elite units worldwide. At a multilateral level, the most interesting development mentioned in the report is that the European Union began the direct subsidization of defense research in November 2016. Although far short of the failed proposal during the 1950s for a European army, this initiative marks a significant development in the EU’s interest, if not competency, in the security field, and in which France will participate.
The document reserves the strongest emphasis, however, for the ongoing Operation Sentinelle (January 2015–). In response to “the terrorist threat” (la menace terroriste, 29), 7,000 French soldiers are currently deployed at public monuments, museums, government buildings, railroad stations, airports, and other vital points throughout France, with an additional 3,000 kept in reserve at the president’s command. Although the longitudinal comparison of threat environments is problematic, the French military and state have probably not experienced such tension and trauma since the attempted student revolution of 1968. In that year, young people attempted to overthrow the existing order in the name of socialism just as many of them are attempting to do today in the name of Islam. The report summarizes, “In 2018, a number of measures shall be put in place to reinforce the protection of defense infrastructures, to appreciably improve the protection of soldiers, to consolidate our cybersecurity capabilities, and to increase the number of cybersecurity staff ” (En 2018, un ensemble de mesures sera mis en oevre afin de renforcer la protection des infrastructures de la defense, d’améliorer sensiblement la protection des combattants, de consolider nos capacities de cyberprotection et d’augmenter les effectifs dédiés à la cyberprotection, 52.)
The remaining provisions mostly concern the culture, care, and stewardship of the armed forces. This year marks the centenary of the end of World War I, during which all the high places (hauts lieux) of national memory will host an extraordinary volume of commemorative programming overseen by vigilant Sentinelle soldiers. The National Guard was also reinstated in November 2016 to help introduce young adults into their national obligations and to provide further security. All eyes will be fixed on remembrances on November 11, Armistice Day. The document also reiterates French commitment to justice for the Harkis, Arab loyalists who refused to participate in the Algerian revolution and who suffered death, exile, and other grievous consequences as a result.
The French defense review does not discuss a great deal, most likely because it does not intend to. The elite French Foreign Legion, which frequently undertakes the most sensitive and dangerous assignments on behalf of the Republic, is not mentioned at all. None of the unenviable, one might say desperate, exertions of the internal security services are mentioned either. Although belonging to different departments, they are nevertheless most directly concerned in the internal counter-terrorist operations which Sentinelle troops support. The Ministry of the Armed Forces likewise demonstrates no interest in the motivations of the declared enemies of the Republic. Generations of Prussians, Nazis, Marxists, and now Islamists have all sought to do her injury; although murder has no ideology, some sense of the enemy’s worldview belongs to any competent threat assessment. Yet the French in this case are to be generally commended for simultaneously addressing historical concerns and embracing emerging challenges.
Mark R. Royce, Ph.D., is a political scientist and international relations scholar, author of The Political Theology of European Integration: Comparing the Influence of Religious Histories on European Policies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017). He has taught at both NOVA-Annandale and George Mason University, where he received an Associate Provost citation for outstanding undergraduate instruction.
Photo Credit: French soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines march in the annual Bastille Day military parade down the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 14, 2017. In the foreground, VBCI of the 16th battalion of chasseurs. DoD photo by Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Dominique Pineiro.