Benoit Gomis
Associate Fellow, International Security (based in Vancouver)

France's long awaited defence and national security White Paper, released on 29 April, outlines some noteworthy cuts in the country's defence capabilities, but these are not as significant as many expected. Furthermore, the document outlines some investment in new areas.  

Significant global events, such as the economic crisis, popular uprisings and subsequent troubles in North Africa and the Middle East, and the US strategic retrenchment and rebalancing towards the Asia-Pacific, led President Hollande to commission a new strategic defence and security review only five years after the previous one.

Several aspects of the White Paper are noteworthy. First the annual defence budget will fall from 1.9% to 1.76% of the country’s GDP, which means that €364bn have been allocated for 2014-2025, including €179bn for 2014-2019. This is a significant shift away from the NATO defence spending target of 2 per cent of GDP, thus demonstrating that the government is willing to face the disapproval of its foreign defence partners in order to get its public spending under control. 

Second, the Livre Blanc proposes a major reduction of 24,000 personnel out of a current total of 280,000, between 2016-19, in addition to the 10,000 personnel cuts already planned until 2015. 

Third, according to the document, France will consider a large cyber attack as an act of war. In response, a chain of command will be created in order to develop offensive cyber capabilities as part of the General Staff (Etat-Major des Armées) while defensive capabilities will remain coordinated at an inter-ministerial level. 

Fourth, there will be more operational focus on intelligence, including through increased investment in Medium Altitude Long Endurance capabilities (surveillance drones).  

Finally, while the previous Livre Blanc highlighted an 'arc of crisis' centred on the Middle East, Africa is set to regain strategic importance to France. The shift in strategic priorities is primarily based on the decline of Al-Qaeda in the Middle East, and post-Arab Spring developments in the Sahel and North Africa 

Overall, the Livre Blanc is a cautious compromise. No radical strategic rebalancing has been announced, although it remains to be seen how it will play out through future operations and interactions with international partners (including UK, US, NATO and EU). The announced budget cuts are far less substantial than some of the scenarios rumoured over a month ago. How it will work in practice will largely be determined by the upcoming Loi de Programmation Militaire (Military Programming Law), in the autumn, which will cover in more detail the choices on capabilities for 2014-2019. The paper does not include discussion on France's nuclear weapons programme, a topic which might become more salient in the next few years given increasing budgetary pressures, and because a growing number of former officials and influential analysts have begun to question the current lack of debate. 

The document reflects the context in which it was prepared. France's military deployment in Mali this year demonstrated the need for a military capable of deploying forces abroad independently, especially as most of France's partners in Europe lacked the capacity and willingness to contribute substantially to the French efforts. The crisis in Mali also highlighted the limits of Hollande and Minister of Defence Le Drian’s initial desire to revive the EU’s role in defence and security. 

The content of the Livre Blanc is also reflective of the domestic political context. President Hollande is on shaky political grounds following a tumultuous political debate on the legalization of same-sex marriage, and unemployment figures have hit a new high. The French government was certainly not keen to face further uproar over wide-ranging defence cuts, although defence policy remains a low-priority topic for most of the population. 

While a broad Commission conducted the review process, Hollande has made the ultimate decisions, forcing him to a compromise, which also partly a reflection of his personality - less decisive and impulsive than his predecessor but more collegial and cautious.

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