President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled major cutbacks in the French armed forces on Tuesday to divert resources against what he called the greater threat of terrorism, and announced France's return to NATO command.
In a major speech setting out his defense strategy, Sarkozy said the armed forces would lose 54,000 posts to make way for a "massive investment" to develop state-of-the-art intelligence.
Bringing France closer to the United States on defense, Sarkozy confirmed France's plans to return to NATO's integrated command, which it left in 1966 when Charles de Gaulle rejected U.S. dominance of the alliance.
"The most immediate threat today is that of a terrorist attack," said the president. "The threat is there, it is real and we know that it can tomorrow take on a new form, even more serious, with nuclear, chemical and biological means."
Sarkozy stressed that France would remain "an independent ally" and keep its nuclear deterrent forces under strict national control as conditions for rejoining NATO command.
"We can renew our relations with NATO without fear for our independence and without running the risk of being unwillingly dragged into a war," said Sarkozy. Officials have said this is expected to take place in 2009.
Gordon Johndroe, the White House national security spokesman, said the U.S. welcomed France's announcement, as did NATO.
While France is a founding member of the 26-member alliance, it is not part of the integrated command structure even though it participates in political decision-making bodies.
Rejoining the military command is seen mostly as a symbolic gesture that would entail the appointment of several French generals to NATO military headquarters and to the alliance's defense planning committee.
But the opposition politicians on the left criticized the move, saying it confirmed a shift toward a pro-U.S. stance under Sarkozy and a loss of the independence that has been a hallmark of French foreign policy for decades.
Between 2009 to 2020, France will spend a total of 377 billion euros ($583 billion) on defense including 200 billion euros on new equipment. As of 2012, the military budget will increase.
Sarkozy announced a "massive investment effort in intelligence" to make use of satellites, drones and other airborne surveillance equipment.
The investments will be offset by cuts in the armed forces, with the army, navy and air forces to be downsized from their current level of some 270,000 troops.
With the largest army in the European Union, France for the first time made homeland security part of its defense strategy to confront threats from terrorism, cyber-attacks and natural disasters.
Sarkozy pledged to pursue his drive to build a European defense force saying the French EU presidency starting next month would be the "first step in re-launching European defense for the coming years."
The white paper in which he set out his reforms also calls for the creation of a 60,000-strong EU force, controversial in countries such as Britain.
Sarkozy also said it was not France's "calling to keep armed forces in Africa for ever," and there would be a "reconfiguration" of resources. Currently it has about 9,000 soldiers deployed on the continent.
Some are in its major African bases in Djibouti, the Senegalese capital Dakar and Libreville, the capital of Gabon.
Others are stationed in Chad -- 2,700 troops make up the backbone of the EUFOR peacekeeping force in the east of the country -- as well as the Central African Republic and Ivory Coast.
Some of France's four permanent bases in Africa will be shut down: Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade has already indicated he would like the French base at Dakar to close. But the paper called for one each to be maintained on the east and west coasts.
Sarkozy announced in January plans to open a permanent base in Abu Dhabi, France's first in the Gulf. Some 50 military bases across France are also to be closed.
Underscoring the focus on intelligence-gathering, a new national security council will be set up at the Elysee palace and a new national intelligence coordinator has been named.© AFP