France’s defense policy

France’s defense policy is a matter of crucial importance for France’s national security and international relations. It establishes the orientations and priorities for the French armed forces, as well as relations with allies and strategic partners. In this article, we will examine the different aspects of France’s defense policy, its objectives and key elements, as well as current developments and challenges.

In this regard, Emmanuel Macron’s statements, while the war in Ukraine continues to take its toll, speak volumes about the turnaround in France’s defense policy from2023. “If, tomorrow, a major partner has to look elsewhere, we will have to be able to act with the Europeans, inside or outside NATO, and, if necessary, to provide the command capabilities that will allow us to conduct a large-scale operation together. For us, this will mean being able to deploy a joint capability representing up to 20,000 men.

I. The organization of defense at the top of the French State

The organization of French national defense is inherited from the 1960s and the influence of President de Gaulle. Despite important evolution, national defense remains fundamentally marked by this original context, first of all, by the primordial weight of the President of the Republic, without necessarily relying on texts.

A. The major role of the President of the Republic

National defense rests primarily on the figure of the President of the Republic. This has been established by usage during theFifth Republic, more so than by constitutional writing – which specify, respectively, in Article 5 that the President is the guarantor of both national independence and the integrity of national territory, and in Article 15 that he is the head of the armed forces.

In this way, the French defense is said to be the” reserved domain” of the President of the Republic, as Jacques Chaban-Delmas put it in 1959.

Thus, it is he who presides over the higher councils and committees of national defense as well as the Council of Defense and National Security, as decided by Jacques Chirac in reaction to the attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York. The latter Defense Council has been meeting at a much more sustained pace since Hollande’s presidency and is intended to be more deliberative whether to address issues related to terrorism or the Covid-19 pandemic under Macron.

Finally, it is the President alone who can decide to commit French nuclear weapons.

B. The role of the Prime Minister and his Minister of the Army

It should not be forgotten, however, that this presidential preponderance is to be put into perspective by the role of the government, which according to Article 20 of the Constitution must determine and conduct the policy of the Nation, assigning to the Prime Minister responsibility for national defense in Article 21.

This was most evident in the cases of cohabitation in theFifth Republic, in 1986, 1993 and 1997: it was then the consensus between the President and the Prime Minister that was sought and achieved to determine the allocation of key defense posts.

The responsibility of the Prime Minister therefore includes that of his government, such as the Ministers of Finance or Transport, who may be of capital importance in the event of war, but, of course, also that of the Minister of the Army. The Minister of the Armed Forces is indeed the one who implements defense policy with the Prime Minister.

C. The three supports of the Ministry of the Armed Forces

Three bodies depend on the Minister of the Armed Forces:

President Emmanuel Macron and Chief of Staff François Lecointre on July 14, 2019
  • The Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces (who heads three chiefs: navy, army, and air force)
  • The Secretary General for Administration
  • The Delegate General for Armaments

The Chief of Staff is the government’s military advisor. He manages all inter-army, air-sea-land relations. He has authority for capability choices and defines the needs of the armed forces. Finally, he is responsible for military intelligence, foreign affairs within the defense sector, and strategy and doctrine.

The Secretary General for Administration is responsible for providing civilian expertise: financial, legal, standards, infrastructure, human resources, etc. He manages relations with other ministries such as the Ministry of Culture or the Ministry of Education.

The Délégué general pour l’Armement designs and manufactures equipment for the forces, and also manages research and industrial policy.

D. The role of parliament

The constitutional law of July 23, 2008, on the modernization of the institutions of theFifth Republic sought to revalorize the role of Parliament in French defense policy, even though Article 34 of the Constitution already states that the main principles of national defense are set out by the legislative power.

However, the role of Parliament remains secondary: it only authorizes the declaration of war and the extension of foreign interventions by the armed forces beyond four months. It can also question the government’s policy.

Two laws in particular should be mentioned: the military programming law, which defines operational priorities every five years and guides equipment and personnel policy, but which is not mandatory and has never been respected; and the annual defense budget law.

II. Contemporary history of defense policy (1958–1991)

The IV Republic was marked by a certain lack of efficiency, and the absence of a defense policy, even if France was present in the world: helped by the United States and their Marshall Plan, France intervened in Indochina and during the Suez war, and fought in Algeria. These difficulties in developing a defense policy are mainly the consequence of the governmental instability of this regime, and the difficulties of cooperation between ministries as they were coalitions. It was only under the presidency of de Gaulle that a defense policy took shape.

A. Defense policy under de Gaulle: national independence (1958–1974)

General de Gaulle conceived his defense policy around three perils, which had to be mastered at the same time, and in an independent manner. This doctrine of national independence was therefore the common denominator of three issues: nuclear deterrence, operational (military) defense of the territory, and the projection of troops (interventions outside the French mainland).

De Gaulle, accompanied by General Billotte, Minister of Overseas Territories, and Alain Peyrefitte, Minister of Research, attended a nuclear test in French Polynesia on 14 September 1966.

De Gaulle feared the dependence of the French General Staff on the Anglo-Saxon General Staff, as had been the case at Dunkirk in 1940 (the battle was lost in France, so the British soldiers were repatriated, leaving the French alone); at Strasbourg in 1944 (the French army was ordered to abandon Strasbourg in order to shorten the front line); and at Suez in 1956 (France halted its operations there, as it was too dependent on the British, who capitulated).

In February 1960, the first French atomic bomb exploded in Reggane, in the Sahara, just four months after de Gaulle had outlined his strategy of national deterrence. It was also in the name of national independence that de Gaulle decided, in 1965, that France would withdraw from NATO by 1969 at the latest.

The presidency of Georges Pompidou continued General de Gaulle’s policy, with primacy given to nuclear weapons and the introduction of tactical weapons. In 1972, the first White Paper on defense codified the official strategy of deterrence.

B. The Giscard presidency: the last golden age of conventional forces (1974–1981)

Defense policy during the Giscard presidency (May 1974–May 1981) was strongly influenced by the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. President Giscard d’Estaing then imagined the possibility that France would have to face this classic type of overseas conflict. This increased the importance of conventional forces (conventional weapons), calling into question the primacy given to nuclear (a non-conventional weapon) since de Gaulle. The objective was then to reinforce the operational defense of the territory (in the case of a Soviet attack), while taking more into consideration the stakes of the overseas territories, particularly on the African continent.

The 1976 military programming law was characterized in theory by the acquisition of new, very modern armaments; in practice, it was not well respected for economic reasons.

C. The Mitterrand presidency: a return to nuclear power at the expense of conventional weapons (1981–1995)

When Mitterrand came to power, the defense world was very apprehensive about the choices of this first socialist president, who seemed inexperienced. In fact, President Mitterrand’s action resulted in a renewed priority for nuclear power, and a weakening of the army.

Indeed, during his first seven-year term, Mitterrand devoted his efforts to nuclear modernization, notably by deciding in 1982 to keep three nuclear submarines permanently underwater; while he drew on the army’s budget to revive the French economy, considering a conventional war (i.e. one that complied with international conventions governing wars) in Europe unlikely. The 1980s were also the time of the Franco-German rapprochement, of which the handshake between Mitterrand and Kohl became a symbol (in September 1984 at Douaumont).

During Mitterrand’s second term in office, it is worth noting the creation of a rapid action force, which was nevertheless at the expense of conventional forces – this army corps was disbanded in 1998 – as well as the replacement of the Pluton missile by the Hades missile, these nuclear weapons having a tactical role (i.e. military and defensive, with a short range) of ultimate warning. Operation Daguet in 1990–1991, which constituted French participation in the international coalition against Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, made France realize the weakness of its defense, both in terms of technological and material means and in terms of logistics and the capacity to mobilize. Finally, it is necessary to professionalize the army.

III. The defense policy of our century

A. The professionalization of the army

On February 22, I informed you of my decision to professionalize all of our defense forces. [I therefore propose that the national service we know today be abolished as of January 11, 1997, and that it be replaced by voluntary service, while maintaining the principle of a rendezvous between the nation and its youth“, Jacques Chirac announced on May 28, 1996 on television.

Even if the military service was only suspended and not abolished, it was a strong change in the defense policy of France, and the result of a long debate between those who denounced its costly aspect (to which it was answered that a professional army is more expensive) and inequality (the most well-off classes managed to escape it much more easily than the working classes or farmers), and those who insisted on its necessity to face military threats, after the disillusionment of the Daguet operation, and to preserve the link between the nation and the army.

The French army has been in continuous decline since 1962, when it numbered one million people; this number fell to 570,000 in 1970 and remained at 550,000 until 1990. This decline is again brutal since the beginning of the century: in 2010, the number of personnel has dropped to 240,000.

It is also the result of the political will of Presidents Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande, who in addition continue to reduce the budget devoted to the army.

B. More clarity on the army budget

Graph from the Histoire France Web site

The budget of the armed forces, everywhere in the world at this time, is in line with the logic of performance and transparency that is at work in other economic sectors. From a legal point of view, it is the organic law on finance laws (LOLF) which modernizes in August 2001 an old ordinance judged to be outdated, too detailed, and unsuited to the movement of decentralization and social redistribution which are taking place at the same time, while the European Union is being set up.

The military programming laws (LPM) are preceded by what used to be called a White Paper, now called the Strategic Review of Defence and National Security. Here is a brief history of the military programming laws since 1997, with their major intentions.

  • The 1997-2002 military programming law: it aims to professionalize the army and modernize equipment in a context of cooperation with NATO and the European Union, while the Senate points out the economic difficulties in achieving these ends.
  • The 2003-2008 military programming law: it aims to further modernize equipment and maintain a certain level of personnel within the army, by making it more attractive.
  • The 2009-2014 military programming law: it integrates the idea that the national security strategy is played out on a European and international scale, as a new era seems to be opening up in the face of globalization and global terrorism. Here too, there are outlines to modernize equipment.
  • The 2014-2019 military programming law: it includes cyber security for the first time, but it is especially marked by the terrorist attacks on French soil, and is therefore updated in 2015, to provide a response: national protection, Operation Sentinel (mobilization of 10,000 soldiers), with a significant increase in the budget.
  • The 1919-2025 military programming law: it is no longer a White Paper but a Strategic Review that set its strategic framework in 2017. It provides for an increase in the budget to 2% of GDP by 2025, full financial responsibility of the Ministry of the Armed Forces for OPEX (external military operations), and continued modernization of equipment. Cyber defence has once again been included. Finally, the nuclear deterrent forces must be modernized. In its strategic update of 2021, after the beginning of the covid-19 pandemic, which emphasizes the resilience of the army (maintaining its permanent missions while contributing to the effort against the pandemic), the persistence of threats and the intensification of power issues are recalled, in particular from China, Russia and the Middle East

C. The organization of the Ministry of the Armed Forces

Since 1991, the Ministry of the Armed Forces has evolved according to the Anglo-Saxon model of inter-army, i.e., a pooling of resources between the four armies (land, air, navy, and gendarmerie).

At that time, this was made concrete by the action of Minister Pierre Jox, who set up several organizations in the direction of interarmization (the Special Operations Command, the Military Intelligence Directorate, the Operations Planning and Conduct Centre, and the Strategic Affairs Delegation).

Then in the 2000s, the same logic led to the pooling of fuel, stewardship, information, military justice, munitions and health services. The pooling is even pushed geographically thanks to the defense bases, which are generalized from January 2011, in order to optimize costs. In addition, the services of the armed forces are increasingly entrusted to companies outside the Ministry of the Armed Forces.

The same objective of streamlining the organization within the Ministry of the Armed Forces is leading to an increasing share of civilian rather than military personnel, so that military personnel can devote themselves to their mission, leaving more administrative matters to civilians.

III. The Armed Forces

A. The central command of France

Let us recall briefly that the Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces has the ultimate responsibility for the command, even if he remains under the authority of the President of the Republic: he manages everything related to the joint forces, therefore, the manpower of the armies, the organization of the armies themselves as well as their objectives, international military relations, and military intelligence.

This is the Armed Forces General Staff, at the top of the pyramid, for all of France. Then there are three specific staffs for each army: land, navy, and air, again for all of France.

In July 2017, General François Lecointre replaced General Pierre de Villiers, who had resigned – an unprecedented event in theFifth Republic – in protest against budget savings that he considered unacceptable.

B. The Army

The army then divided its command into six major zones:

  1. Ile de France land zone,
  2. North-East land zone: Hauts-de-France and Grand Est;
  3. North-Western land zone: Pays de la Loire, Brittany, Normandy, Centre-Val de Loire;
  4. South Earth Zone: Occitania and Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, and Corsica;
  5. South-East Earth Zone: Auvergne and Rhône-Alpes;
  6. South-West Land Area: Nouvelle-Aquitaine.

This organization should enable it to accomplish its missions, the two most important of which are: to defend the territory, of course, via the Vigipirate and Sentinel outlines, for example; and to be able to rapidly mobilize a large number of troops outside the territory, as was the case during Operation Serval in Mali.

C. The French Navy

The French Navy is concentrated around three bases in mainland France: Brest – Ile Longue; Toulon; and Cherbourg.

There are five overseas bases: Dégrad des Cannes (French Guiana), Fort-de-France (Martinique), Nouméa (New Caledonia), Papeete (French Polynesia), and Port-des-Galets (Reunion).

The command is divided into four zones: Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and Mediterranean.

The organic command under the authority of the Chief of Naval Staff is responsible for preparing the forces.

The purpose of the marine forces obviously includes coastal defense (surveillance role today) and combat, but also sea rescue and humanitarian aid.

D. The Air Force

The missions are the same, adapted to the air environment, thus including territorial defense, and combat preparation if necessary. Two important roles must be added: reconnaissance missions (in addition to satellites), and transport.

Fighter aircraft, used to control airspace, can eliminate threats thanks to the simultaneous use of radar and missiles. Only two models are used in France today: the Rafale and the Mirage 2000. France currently uses about 200 of these aircraft.

A new model, the Airbus A400M Atlas, is expected to renew the equipment. In 2021, France has been delivered only 17 of these aircraft out of 50 orders placed, due to significant delays.


When the army intervenes outside French territory on the decision of the President of the Republic, we speak of OPEX, in full the externalmilitary operationsof France, as was the case about 100 times between 1995 and 2021. The most recent OPEX have mainly concerned Africa:

  • Harmattan (in Libya, 2011)
  • Serval (in Mali, 2013)
  • Sangaris (in the Central African Republic, 2013)
  • Barkhane (in the Sahel, 2014)
  • Chammal (in Iraq and Syria, 2014).

These interventions outside national territory are to be distinguished from forces pre-positioned in bases in Africa, which are permanently deployed and therefore not strictly speaking part of an OPEX.

They are also distinct from what are known as sovereignty forces, whose characteristic is that they are located in overseas departments and communities.

Around 650 deaths have been deplored among the French military between 1969 and 2019, more than half in the following three territories: Chad, Lebanon, and the former Yugoslavia.

Map of the deployment of French armed forces. Source: Etat major des armées, August 2019.

F. Personnel statistics

According to 2020 figures for 2019, there were 114,677 military personnel engaged in the army. The average age was 32.9 years, and the proportion of women was only 16.10%.

To these figures must be added the reservists (+ 40,000 people) and civilians, to reach the number of 268,294 people working for the Ministry of the Armed Forces.

IV. Future challenges for France’s defence policy

A. A Europe of defence?

The idea of forming a common defence in Europe took shape after the Second World War, and during the Cold War, and is still a project today. From France’s point of view, the common project of a defence uniting the countries of Europe must therefore be read in the light of the desire for national independence and dependence on the United States.

France’s independence policy has varied widely over the past century. The Fourth Republic adopted an Atlanticist stance, based on American hegemony. De Gaulle thus marked a turning point in the 1960s by clearly affirming his desire for independence from the British and the Americans. The following presidential terms softened this attitude, by moving closer to the Americans again. It was only then, in the 1980s and 1990s, that the question of a European defence system was truly raised.

From an institutional point of view, a project carried by Jean Monnet had nevertheless been drawn up in 1950 for“a European army attached to the political institutions of a united Europe, placed under the responsibility of a European Minister of Defence, under the control of a European assembly, with a common military budget” (declaration by René Pleven in October 1950). A treaty establishing a European Defence Community was signed, although in terms that differed from what had been hoped for in the Pleven plan. But it was not ratified by France, the National Assembly rejecting it in 1954, giving reason to De Gaulle, who had opposed the project.

It was not until the end of the Cold War, the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia, and the establishment of the European Union that the idea of a European defense system was revived. The Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is indeed one of the three pillars of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which founded the European Union. In practice, the common defence framework of the European Union remains NATO.

In 1998, a summit between Tony Blair (United Kingdom) and Jacques Chirac (France) marked an unexpected new direction, with both countries agreeing on the need to give the European Union a military capability.

Since the Lisbon Treaty of 2007, this policy has been supplemented and strengthened by a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP). The CSDP is more binding on the signatory states and legitimizes the European Defence Agency, which was set up in 2004 with the aim of “developing defence capabilities, research, acquisition and armaments”. With regard to the United States, the Lisbon Treaty also insists that its provisions “remain consistent with the commitments entered into within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which remains, for the states that are members of it, the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.

The European Parliament will formally adopt in April 2021 – so after the Brexit – the budget for the European Defense Fund, whose idea has been carried by France, Germany, Italy and Spain since 2016. Intended for research and development of industrial programs in the field of defense, 7.9 billion euros are mobilized for the period 2021-2027.

B. Remaining a credible power

France caught up with its defense budget

In 2019, France still had the sixth largest defence budget in the world ($50 billion), far behind the United States ($732 billion), far behind China ($261 billion), and also behind India ($71 billion), Russia ($65 billion), and Saudi Arabia ($62 billion).

It was comparatively third in the world in 2010, but has kept a stable budget, and has therefore seen itself, like other European nations, caught up by powers that have strongly increased their military spending.

Money being the sinews of war, the budget obviously remains a major issue, and France outlines to increase it to a total of 295 billion euros for the period 2019-2025.

One item of expenditure is receiving particular attention: the budget for improving the working conditions of the military is to increase by 14% between 2019 and 2023, with priority given to small equipment.

Maintaining the advantage of nuclear power

Although France is falling behind in the world in terms of its defense budget, nuclear deterrence remains a valuable asset that must nevertheless be modernized. To this end, a new class of nuclear submarines, Suffren, must be deployed until 2030; the naval and air components must also be modernized.

C. New fronts, new forms of warfare

New threats identified: Russia, China, etc.

As the 2017 Strategic Defense Review points out, Russia is adopting a threatening strategy for the West, seeking to “weaken the transatlantic link and divide the European Union,” whose intimidation must be responded to firmly.

A second source of concern comes from China, which the 2017 Review believes wants to establish itself as the dominant power in East Asia, and then surpass the United States. In addition to projection capabilities, particularly in the China Sea where islands dedicated to military operations have been built, France risks being overtaken in the areas of intelligence, space and cyber, in which China is investing heavily.

Terrorism continues to be a major concern for France, with the problem now being its entrenchment within the territory, while the war against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq has been underway since September 2014.

There are also concerns about Turkey, or the possibility of a threat in North Africa. Maritime space also remains a concern.

Future challenges: cyber, space, and artificial intelligence

If China wants to develop its mastery of the digital terrain, the United States remains the unavoidable power, with companies crushing the market, the GAFAMs – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Microsoft – reaching a market capitalization of $4.5 trillion in April 2021, and decisively influencing the entire sector. China responds by banning US services to its citizens, and by its own group of companies, the BATX – Baidu, Alibaba, Tencent and Xiaomi – which represented according to estimates provided in September 2019 around $950 billion in market capitalization. Access to data centers has thus become an important issue, in addition to hacking and virtual bots investing social networks, for example.

Another way of waging war at a distance concerns exo-atmospheric space, which is rapidly changing under the effect of technological innovations, all the more so because of the legislative vacuum in this area. More and more invested by States and even private actors, space is becoming militarized under the pretext of civilian use. In July 2019 was formalized by President Macron the creation of a military command dedicated to space.

In order to counter“the scale and technological sophistication of the attacks [which] Are constantly increasing in digital space,” noted by the 2017 Review, it is planned to continue efforts in the field of cyber defense: the budget should register an increase of 1.6 billion euros between 2019 and 2025. Investment in research and development is to increase to €1 billion annually.

On the horizon is a struggle to maintain technological leadership, especially in the promising field of artificial intelligence, which is expected to replace or assist humans in performing certain cognitive tasks. To that end, President Macron is revealing an Artificial Intelligence plan, designed to stimulate innovative projects with a €1.5 billion budget through2022, combined with a legislative framework that facilitates the experience of these technologies.

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