France – enfant terrible in nuclear disarmament

Will France at least discuss nuclear disarmament?

by Gunnar Westberg

France has a reputation of being  the country where the question of nuclear disarmament is taboo. Any aspect of nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy is the prerogative of the President who does not condescend to discuss these exalted questions with the parliament or – God forbid! – journalists or common citizens. French diplomats taking part in international negotiations insist that as long as there is a bow and an arrow in the world, France needs its nuclear weapons. The reason for the French intransigence may be that the raison d’etre of the French nuclear force is so weak.

To keep Germany down and the USA in.

When the French Prime Minister Pierre Mendès-France  in 1954 decided that France should develop nuclear weapons, his decision was based on his wartime experience: he feared German rearmament. As NATO grew stronger it became clear that the organization was going to be successful in two of its three goals: To keep Russia out and Germany down. However, France distrusted the USA and was uncertain if the third goal of NATO, to keep USA in Europe, could be secured. NATO was not sufficient. France developed its nuclear strategy with the goal to force the USA to defend Europe. To this end, the French nuclear armed missiles were directed towards Soviet cities, not against that country’s nuclear installations. If the Soviet Union threatened, or invaded,  Western Europe, French nuclear weapons would destroy Leningrad, Moscow , Minsk and other big cities. The Soviet military leaders would see this as an attack by NATO . Nuclear missiles have no “Sender” label.  The response from the Soviet Union would be an all out attack on all NATO countries, especially the USA. Knowing  that this was French strategy, the US would be forced to tell the Russians that they would stand up for Europe. The French nukes were intended to force US policy.

Deterrence works only if the adversary knows what you may be able to do if he attacks you. In this case we must ask if the US knew what the French policy was and accepted its implications. I a  discussion which I had  with General Lee Butler about ten years ago he said that only when in 1991 he became Commander-in-Chief of the US Strategic Command did he learn that the French nuclear doctrine was primarily intended to force the American hand.  If this was not generally known in the US leadership, how could the US leaders tell the Russians they intended to stand up for Europe, by force if not by will. You can be too clever.

Today: Nukes keep peace and increase self-esteem in France.

The French nuclear strategy today is less diabolic, but not more rational and not more ethical. A French minister of defense said recently that if France was attacked by terrorists, the country supporting these terrorists would be subject to nuclear retaliation.  Polls in France report that many or most French citizens  say that they need to keep their nukes against the flow of immigrants from North Africa.  How the nukes are going to be used in this context is not discussed.

At  the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, we recently met with M. Martin Briens, Deputy Director of the new section for Nuclear Proliferation and Disarmament. When asked why France today needs its nuclear weapons while Germany can do without, he said that Germany was under the nuclear umbrella. One might ask, whose umbrella? As reasons why France should have and keep its nuclear weapons, he listed : 1. We have them. History justifies. 2. We have only good intentions, others, e.g. Iran, have evil intentions. 3. We have the right according to the NPT. 4. China is increasing its nuclear weapons force, soon to be equal to that of France.  I general there was so much talk about China in the attempts to justify French nukes that we almost felt that China was about  to invade France.

Fear of a nuclear weapons free world

The core of his thinking was however clear, beyond all the muddled arguments: A world without nuclear weapons is unstable. In such a world there would be much less deterrence against war.  Nuclear weapons keep peace.

This is of course a classical argument. If we look back over the time since World War II we can muster strong claims both for and against this theory. Here is not the place to review this discussion. We in the peace movement argue that had nuclear deterrence between the USA and the Soviet Union failed we would not be here to argue.  And we were pretty close to extinction on more than one occasion, notably in 1983. If nuclear weapons are allowed to persist they will be used.

It may be appropriate to remind ourselves that in a world without nuclear weapons the US military superiority would be enormous and sufficient to achieve what the nuclear deterrence might be doing today. Maybe this, the US military hegemony, is what France fears most of all?

Things may be changing?

The discussion on nuclear disarmament has been heavily censored in France, as has any discussion on nuclear strategy.  However, things may be changing. Four previous political and military leaders with a high status in France have written an article in the journal Le Monde Oct 15 2009. They are Alain Juppé and Michel Rocard, both previous Prime ministers , Bernard Norlain, General and former commander of the air combat force, and Alain Ricard, former minister of Defense. They argue that the risk of nuclear proliferation is great and increasing. Many nations may acquire nuclear weapons in the next decade or two. In that situation the ”old”  nuclear weapon states cannot force their will upon these states, for fear of nuclear retaliation. We should start a debate if not the time has come for France to greatly decrease its dependence on nuclear weapons, in order to make our anti-proliferation agenda credible.

Thus the arguments were quite similar to those from the US “Gang of Four” in their publications in Wall Street Journal in Jan. 2008 and Jan. 2009. But of course, the French paper made no reference to the US article, nor to the British, German or Polish publications with the same arguments and written by previous leaders in foreign policy and defense. France has its own independent agenda and does not follow anyone’s lead.  And the paper only asked for discussions, not for action.

The publication was within hours followed by another article, long on words and short on arguments, written by a well-known journalist, Jean Guisnel. He argued that France should not disarm, because no one else would follow. This argument is used repeatedly by all those who oppose disarmament. They pretend that unilateral disarmament has been proposed,  which is never the case.   What is and should be discussed is: How best to achieve a multilateral, transparent, verifiable nuclear disarmament? How to make credible that the ultimate goal is Zero nuclear weapons, so as to make nuclear wannabe s

Remember Mururoa!

France may be the last and the most difficult holdout. But when the endgame of nuclear abolition begins, even France will see the writing on the wall.

If not, remember Mururoa! When the President of France  threatened to continue the nuclear tests on that crumbling  island, we took to the streets and poured good Bordeaux into the gutters. It worked that time. It could work again.

Gunnar Westberg is former President of IPPNW, International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. This article was originally published on the IPPNW Peace and Health Blog.

France recognises responsibility to victims of nuclear tests

The veterans of France’s nuclear testing, after years of futile approaches to military authorities and legal tribunals, all systematically dismissed or (if successful) referred to appeal by the ministry, have now won an apparently decisive victory.

For the first time, a Minister of Defense has now recognised a link, in principle, between some deaths and some illnesses (chiefly cancers) suffered by career servicemen, conscripts and civilians who took part in the France’s nuclear testing campaigns, and even by the members of the populations exposed to radioactive fallout from some atmospheric tests.

Hervé Morin has now announced a compensation bill. The onus of proof (proof of a causal link between a cancer and exposure to radiation from tests) no longer lies with the victims. In the majority of cases, such medical proof was almost impossible to present, and even an attestation from an eminent oncologist – as presented in the case of Lucien Parfait – was rejected for decades.

The conclusions of official studies on the matter “were positive“, according to Jacques Chirac during his presidency. The association of Polynesian victims “Moruroa e Tatu” quoted him as saying in September 2002 to the Tahitian press: “there will be no adverse effects on health, in the short term or the long term,” and “there are no effects to be feared on animals or plants.” “Besides, it has not been considered useful to conduct radiological and geo-mechanical surveys of the atolls for the sake of radiological protection,” even though France will still continue her “monitoring” of the sites. Similarly, the medical monitoring of personnel involved “did not result in detection of exposure to ionising radiation greater than natural radioactivity produces,” according to France’s then Head of State – admittedly the man responsible for nuclear tests being resumed straight after his election in 1995.

Today the current Minister of Defense recognises that 150,000 people could have been affected by radiation and could ask for reparation.

The victims, however, or the families of deceased victims, will have to assemble a dossier proving that they were present on the test sites – and for this purpose it seems that only some atmospheric tests will count, the only ones the army recognises as contentious.

Officially, France conducted 210 atomic tests. 17 were in the Sahara from 1960 to 1966, including the first four atmospheric tests and one underground one which accidentally became atmospheric (“Beryl”). The other 193 were at the C.E.P (Centre d’Expérimentation du Pacifique) between 1966 à 1996 – 46 atmospheric tests between 1966 and 1974, then 147 underground.

Note, however, that France’s first acknowledged atmospheric explosion, “Gerboise Bleue”, which took place in the Sahara on 13 February 1960 and prompted a victory telegram from General de Gaulle: “Hooray for France !“, may have been preceded by one or two undeclared tests in the Sahara in late 1959.

The atmospheric tests were done on pylons, or from planes or balloons, or in barges, and those in Polynesia were spread over a vast region including the Gambier and Tuamotou archipelagoes. The underground tests were in deep boreholes in the belts or under the lagoons of the Moruroa and Fangataufa atolls (“Moruroa” is the local spelling and pronunciation, but the French army and administration use “Mururoa“).

With 50 acknowledged atmospheric tests (in fact 51) certainly causing radioactive fallout, France has contributed nearly 10 % of the approximate 540 atmospheric tests of all the nuclear powers. In most cases their fallout was considered negligible.

It must be understood, however, that radioactive materials which do not fall back to earth at or near the test sites keep circulating in the upper atmosphere for years and eventually fall to earth elsewhere. As for the radioactive materials left underground, they end up contaminating the groundwater or the oceans, and subsequently the food chain. We must note also that there is no minimum threshold for exposure to a dose of radioactivity, below which it is safe. In fact, our entire planet has been contaminated by the military tests of the nuclear powers (in total over 2500 tests) and continues to be contaminated by nuclear weapons programmes and nuclear power generation.

Lucien Parfait is one of the military victims who brought a case to court. He was a conscript at the time of “Gerboise Bleue”. He was on the site at In Ekker, 500 metres from “ground zero” on 1 May 1962, when the underground test called “Beryl” malfunctioned, causing a huge cloud of radioactive dust to engulf a large proportion of those present (including the Minister of Research, who later died of leukemia which he blamed on the accident).

Since then, Lucien Parfait was operated on some thirty times. To understand his terrible ordeal, read his testimony, recently reported by France-Soir. For him, or his comrades and their families, no compensation can obliterate the suffering they endured “for France”.

What of the civilian populations of Tahiti, and the Gambier and Tuamotu islands? Judging by the minimalist conclusions of the report of Marcel Jurien de la Gravière (Delegate responsible for defense nuclear safety), submitted on 2 October 2006 to the then Minister of Defense, Mme Alliot-Marie, those Polynesian populations will have huge difficulties gaining recognition for the damage done to their health and their lives. It will be even harder for the Tuaregs of the Sahara.

But the Minister, Hervé Morin, has henceforth made provision for a very limited number of compensation payouts, as is made clear by the size of the total envelope – a laughable sum when compared with the real needs. In the present state of his bill, he is designed to have the last word on any compensation proposed by the future Allocations Commission. In his view, “a few hundred” victims might have the right to compensation. The real figure runs to thousands or tens of thousands. Michel Vergès, the president of AVEN (Association des Victimes des Essais Nucléaires), says that his organisation alone includes 800 widows of deceased test veterans.

If this new bill is to honour France’s belated “recognition of debt”, it will have to be seriously amended by France’s MPs. They must make the compensation envelope a great deal heavier – to do so would be mere justice.

ACDN, 24 March 2009

Voir la dépêche de l’AFP