French President Nicolas Sarkozy is planning to modernize the French armed forces, finally. His ambitious plans are already angering traditionalists, who want to continue seeing defense through twenty-century lenses. Sarkozy presented the new defense white paper on 17 June 2008. In a very French style, officers writing under the pseudonym “Surcouf” promptly attacked the plan. Sales of Le Figaro were quite as healthy nearby military barracks as l'Elysée. The plan has certain issues. Yet it does not read in the ‘amateurish’ manner the Surcouf group suggests. It is thus convenient to highlight first some of the most heavily debated points:
- Reincorporate France into the military command of NATO. Charles de Gaulle, whose thinking continues to influence the military establishment, started the disengagement in the late 1950s. Prepare yourself for some epic crossed-door battles between the American and French generals, as well as more anonymous articles on Le Figaro.
- Sarkozy’s plans call for job cuts in the region of 54,000 heads (and the closure of many military bases). We all know the bitter meaning job cuts has in France, add to that the military establishment and words such as modernization and you have the ingredients for what in the periphery of the world would be enough to unleash a bloody coup d’état.
- The budget will be ‘optimized’ and intelligence, space technology, and hi-tech equipment prioritized. Linked to this reconfiguration of defense tasks, various infrastructure projects are effectively put on hold, such as an anticipated new aircraft carrier.
The French president is found of the British business model. This is the first major French restructuring of its forces in 14 years –and it sets a vision for the next 15. Yet, if you read carefully, it envisages doing in a single revision what for the British (and American) took a few. What analysts are not reading, however, is that the whole process sets the scene for a robust and due expansion of the French private military sector. At the outset, the downsizing would result in many new French Private Military Companies (PMCs). Not only the downsized personnel will join, but also dissatisfied top brass and elite soldier not happy with the revised roles. At the same time, PMCs would have to satisfy some of the areas the budget will gradually cease to cover. Moreover, the new technologies necessarily would need to be partly supplied and maintained by the defense industry and its highly trained and mobile specialists, read private military personnel here too. Feel free to fill the gaps of a story we are familiar with about supply and demand factors linked to the rise of the Anglo-Saxon private military industry. Robert Surcouf was a famous French corsair who had a symbolic victory against the British during the Napoleonic wars. The anonymous Le Figaro writers have already spotted the connection between Sarkozy’s vision and British defense reform over the last 15 years. In fact, they feel bitter about apparently being relegated to second division of European defense after the British if Sarkozy gets his way. Perhaps the Surcouf group should be happy that the basis is being set for them to have finally a private military industry to rival the British (and American) one(s).