The politics of national defense
BRAC (Base Realignment and Closure, a bureacratic DoD term that doesn't translate well into elegant French) is nevertheless what is on the President Nicolas Sarkozy's mind these days when he considers France's defense options. BRAC - that lengthy process that the US last went through in 2005-2006, involving multiple clearances through military, Congressional, and state and local filters before any base is closed - is basically what Sarkozy and his government are proposing, though they are holding off until the end of July (maybe they are hoping that as much of France goes on vacation, no one will notice). Update: today's "Telegramme de Brest" says that the announcement will be made by Prime Minister Francois Fillon on 24 July).
Though much of the plan had already been leaked, last week's Bastille Day pageant was allowed to take place before official pronouncements of painful cuts. The outlines are clear, however: close bases, disband units, and make France's Army (the Navy is also due for hits, though of a lesser order, while the Air Force is to be trimmed by almost 25%) better fit for deployment abroad, whether alone, or as part of UN, EU, or NATO operations. Sarkozy, as President of the European Union Council for the rest of 2008, also has in mind making forces available for a new "European Pillar of NATO."
As in an American BRAC process, much of this doesn't go down well with those most concerned: the military hierarchy, and the local hosts who depend on a unit's presence in their jurisdiction for economic stimulus, a kind of reverse NIMBY: "cuts are fine, as long as they're not in my constituency." Given the military's traditional presence on France's littoral or along its eastern and northern borders, these "legacy" bases are often in economically deprived areas, making the hits even harder to absorb. But they probably make sense from a standpoint of rationalization (much was made of the move of the 13th "Dragon" Paratroop Regiment [RDP, a reconnaissance unit] from its longtime home in the Moselle valley along the border with Germany, to southwest France where several of its sister special forces units are stationed. Local officials only see the zero-sum aspect of losing, in the case of the RDP, half of its population. In an excellent July 23 article, Catherine Magueur in Le Telegramme shows that party politics - shocking! - plays a large part in gerrymandering the new military map of France. Too bad for bases and communities represented by the opposition...
Civilian control of the military
All this was hovering in the background (the excellent "JDD," le Journal de Dimanche on 13 July had a special two page pre-Bastille Day spread on Sarkozy and a discontented military) on 14 July, when France's military showed its finest marching style down the Champs Elysées. Luckily for Sarkozy, the French military has matured from the days when, a half century ago in Algeria, its frustrated generals staged a "putsch" that helped fell the 4th Republic. In 2008, there is grumbling in the ranks, where some feel that Sarkozy "humiliated" the honor of professional soldiers when he spoke of "amateurs" after a live-fire accident during a public event in Carcassonne - resulting in the resignation of the Chief of Staff of the Army, General Cuche. Other officers anonymously joined a collective called "Surcouf" to sign a broadside against the "White Paper" that in the US context would have been the equivalent of the initial BRAC recommendations. But don't expect any "putsch."
In the end, all the military wants is a little respect (one senior officer admitted that "the army is une grande sentimentale"). Many realize that "modernization" is overdue, and lament having to spend scarce resources on excess manpower when what they really need is spare parts. Sarkozy's task (one of the many he has set himself in his "hyperpresidency") is to convince the French Army and its constituency that his reforms are in a context of recognition of the Army's worth. One issue to monitor closely: as Sarkozy develops his "European Pillar of NATO" proposals and tries to leverage American acceptance of EU defense prerogatives in exchange for French reintegration into NATO's military command, check the French military reaction. Away from the EU/NATO negotiations, will Sarkozy be seen as strengthening the French pillar, or undermining its foundations? And what of the multiplicity of commitments? Former defense minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, in the JDD, questioned how France could maintain 18 current overseas deployments, and entertain expanded commitments under an activist Sarkozy, all while reducing its military establishment.
As with all things Sarkozy, it's best to wait until the fireworks are long over, the dust settles, and then look at his military modernization campaign with a little bit of "recul." In the meantime, wish the French Army a quiet summer holiday, and a bit of distance from its hyperactive Commander-in-Chief.