17 JULY 1976, Page 11

France's credible deterrent

Sam White

Paris An enormous theological dispute has broken out in France over that sacrosanct symbol of Gaullism—France's independent nuclear deterrent. The dispute blew up when the chief of staff of the French army, General

Mery, published a learned thesis stating that from now on France must adopt a so-called 'forward' strategy deploying its tactical nuclear artillery on West Germany's eastern frontiers in the event of the Federal Republic becoming the victim of unprovoked attack from the eastern bloc. The uproar that followed still continues and the dispute has already claimed one notable martyr in the redoubtable figure of Vice-Admiral Antoine Sanguinetti, who was promptly put on the retired list by President Giscard as a disciplinary measure for his virulent press attacks on what he claimed was a new and most grave departure from Gaullist defence Policy.

Sanguinetti claimed with considerable

force in a series of articles in Le Monde and Other publications including, oddly enough, the socialist Unite and the communist L'HumaniteDimanche that the new policy Signified that France was about to return in a stealthy fashion to NATO and to the unified —that is American—NATOcommand from Which de Gaulle has rescued her. His reasoning was that in effect the new policy meant that France had accepted the American thesis of a graduated response to a possible Soviet aggression and that this in effect Meant an undeclared reintegration with NATO and a consequent loss of independence in the vital matter of decisions concerning her own survival. It also meant, the Admiral claimed, the loss of all credibility of the French deterrent, for the aggressor would feel that by reducing western Europe to rubble with tactical atomic weapons he would render the use by France of its strategic atomic force all the more unlikely.

Meanwhile the two super-powers would be effectively `sanctuarised' by the balance of terror that exists between the two, and only Europe, deprived of independent French atomic protection, would be devastated. According to the Admiral, therefore, the correct strategy in the event of a conflict should be the immediate threat of an atomic response based of course on an early evaluation of the Soviet threat—whether in short it was a mere foray which could be met with conventional weapons or the harbinger of a full-scale invasion. This is, of course, classic Gaullist doctrine, and the Admiral's viewpoint met with instant approval from such Gaullist stalwarts as the General's former prime minister, M Debre, and his former defence minister, M Messmer. It was also greeted with delight by the French left, especially the communists, who, from having been the fiercest opponents of de Gaulle's successful attempt to build a credible French deterrent, have now warmed to the idea to the point where on defence matters they are hardly distinguishable from orthodox Gaullists.

The communists have long been baying that Giscard plans a French return to NATO, and the Admiral's words were honeyed ones to their ears. What especially irritated them about General Mery's declaration of policy was that the potential enemy wasclearly designated as coming from the east whereas in de Gaulle's day defence was based on the 'tolls azimut' theory— that is, repelling attack from any quarter. Oddly enough the theory was not as dotty as it sounds. It was enunciated at the time of the Vietnam war when de Gaulle had serious fears that NATO countries might be involved in a generalised Far East conflagration. It also served, again at that time, his diplomatic purposes. It never, however, interfered with close cooperation with NATO after France had left the integrated command structure, a cooperation which, needless to say, exists to this day although it is now much closer and much more relaxed.

Does this herald a future return of France to the NATO fold ? Not on your life. There is about as much chance of that as of France landing a man on the moon. To revert to de Gaulle and NATO, however, it should be remembered that France, while withdrawing from the military organisation, remained a member of the Atlantic Alliance, with all the obligations that that entailed, including the defence of any one of its allies if it were a victim of unprovoked attack. Nor did de Gaulle take these obligations lightly. He disapproved of the Vietnam war, which he considered to be a gigantic folly, but he fully supported the United States in the Cuban confrontation. Indeed his support for Kennedy's stand was the promptest of all America's allies. It is interesting to note in this respect that among all the Gaullist voices raised against Giscard's allegedly new defence policy there is one discordant one— and that a voice of quite exceptional distinction. It is that of a man who served as chief of staff under de Gaulle and who to boot is de Gaulle's son-in-law, General de Boissieu. Privy to de Gaulle's military thinking both in his official capacity and in regular family contact with him, the General, who is now Grand Chancellor of the Legion of Honour, says that far from there being anything new in what his successor has written it is all old hat to him.

What General de Boissieu is saying in effect is that the so-called new defence policy is in fact the open declaration of the secret instructions given by de Gaulle himself to his military commanders when he was president. If de Gaulle was opposed to President Kennedy's theory of a 'graduated response' to an aggression, that was not because it involved the forward defence of West Germany but because it cast doubts on American readiness to defend its allies with all the means in its power even down to its readiness to use tactical nuclear weapons. General de Boissieu goes on to say that the West Germans naturally fear that a tactical nuclear battle would develop on their own soil and that it is therefore necessary to reassure them by insisting that their allies would unleash such weapons as close as possible to its eastern frontiers. Such, he says, was the plan approved not only by de Gaulle but also by Pompidou and by successive ministers of defence, including M Debre and M Messmer.

The basic credibility of the French atomic deterrent is now not in question. It can inflict from its underground silos, from its submarines and to a lesser extent by delivery from its Mirage IV, what de Gaulle called 'unacceptable damage' to a potential aggressor. What is in doubt is its credibility to its major ally, West Germany. That is to say whether France will defend West German territory with the same readiness as it would its own. It is this doubt that the Mery declaration seeks to set at rest and to spell out publicly. Those who in France now argue that the sole objective of the French nuclear deterrent is to secure the `sanctuarisation' of French territory are treading on very dangerous ground indeed. They are not only putting in doubt French treaty obligations, but they are opening a Pandora's box of doubts and uncertainties in West Germany.

The .cntire political and diplomatic efficacy of the French deterrent lies, as de

Gaulle once said, in that unlike the American one it finds itself not on the other side of the Atlantic but in Europe. For the French to refuse to extend the protection of its deterrent to the West Germans would condemn French diplomacy to sterility. Above all, it would open the temptation to the West Germans to defy all the risks and break their own treaty obligations by setting out to ' create a nuclear arsenal of their own. What the critics of General Mery, and by implica

tion of President Giscard, are doing is to preach a kind of doctrine of national nuclear neutrality.

The best defence, or rather the best assurance that the bombs should remain in their silos or on their submarines and in their hangars, is that the potential enemy should be in no doubt that in the event of extreme danger to France or its allies the President will be a man of sufficient character and courage to press the button.