By Jeff Lightfoot, june 24, 2016
France will attend the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit as a country at war both at home and abroad.
Countering the terrorist threat is France’s leading national security priority. France’s position on NATO issues and participation in NATO activities should be understood in that context.
The three terrorist attacks which struck France in 2015 demonstrated the severity of the terrorist threat to Europe and to France in particular. In the words of Patrick Calvar, head of France’s internal security service, the nature of the terrorist threat is a matter not of « if » but of “where” and “when.” In hopes of staying ahead of the threat, France has responded aggressively, pushing its military, intelligence services, and internal security forces to the limit.
10,000 French troops remain deployed in France (since January 2015) in operation Sentinelle to protect national sites such as religious institutions, schools, tourist sites, and mass transit. This indefinite deployment – which has lasted longer than anticipated – has strained French forces, limited training opportunities, and constrained France’s capacity to participate in other activities.
French forces are also engaged in fighting terrorism abroad, particularly in Africa and the Middle East. These deployments – Operation Barkhane in the Sahel (3500 troops) and Operation Chammal in support of the anti-ISIS coalition in Iraq/Syria (1000 troops) are France’s two primary overseas counterterrorism missions. France’s Charles de Gaulle aircraft carrier also participated in the anti-Da’esh operations, even backfilling for the absence of a US carrier in the region in late 2015. These operations take place outside the NATO framework but represent France’s ever closer military cooperation with allies, in particular the United States. They also represent an important French contribution to the security of Europe’s periphery.
These internal and external military operations have put France’s military and its defense budget under great strain. France has between 25,000 and 30,000 troops deployed in operations at any one point in time. In the aftermath of the Paris attacks and the growing burden on France’s armed forces, President Francois Hollande halted planned defense personnel cuts and instituted increases in the size of France’s security and intelligence apparatus. France’s annual defense budget – expected to rise slightly to 32 billion Euros – is roughly 1.8% of GDP, just below the 2% threshold mandated by NATO. As one of the largest defense spenders in Europe – and certainly one of the most active countries in terms of sharing the global security burden – France is eager to see its European partners take on a greater share of the security burden.
France will not join the US, Germany, and the UK in serving as a framework nation for one of the four rotational battalions in the Baltic republics, an important element of NATO’s new deterrence measures against Russia. France claims that its military is too overstretched with current operations to take on a leadership role, although French forces will participate in the forward presence at a to-be-determined level. However, France was an advocate along with the US, UK, and Germany in supporting the ‘tripwire’ of persistent rotational forces rather than a heavy, permanent posture of Allied forces in region.
Picture : French soldier in Afghanistan, Feb. 7, 2010 (photo: Major Paul Smyth/UK Ministry of Defense)
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