Group A – Nuclear Policies

“France, NATO and the Nuclear Issue”


France’s relationship with NATO has never been easy. Although it was one of the founding members it increasingly began to distance itself from the main vision of that organization. NATO was conceived by the majority of its founding members as an instrument to implement a joined occidental defense against the Eastern Bloc. Of course the US were the first promoter and supporter of this alliance. In fact they created the concept of common defense and extended it to Europe to achieve a combined effort to contain the Soviet Union. As the project creator, the US have obviously always had a leading role in the NATO decision making processes, which was an element that France started to disapprove since its very foundation.

However its position was not shared by the majority of its members, because the other allies looked at the US as the only superpower that could counter the USSR. The main reasons were related to the overwhelming political and military power that the US had gained after World War II. Concerning politics after 1945, the US abandoned the Monroe doctrine to embrace a more interventionist foreign policy. The ultimate consequence was that Washington began to acquire a great influence in European domestic affairs because in that period the boundaries between internal and external policy started to soften. The Cold War had started and it entailed radical changes not only in interstate relations but also in intrastate actions.

In the military field the US had the biggest atomic arsenal and, as the Hiroshima and Nagasaki attack taught, they were not afraid to use it. Therefore, while European states considered the US’s ingerence as a protection for their own safety, France started to deplore the American interference. It wanted NATO to be more independent from the US, hoping to reduce their influence within the organization, and aspired to a cooperation model founded on an equal basis and mutual respect. Because of these differences of opinion, France withdrew from NATO and started to implement its own defense plan, which included creating its own atomic weapon.

To better understand France’s vision about NATO and its nuclear program it is necessary to consider the historical context. NATO was founded on April 4, 1949 as an intergovernmental military alliance based on the North Atlantic Treaty. Of course France was part of the founding members. Since its creation NATO appeared to the French to be an instrument for the US to use Europe as a containment barrier to avoid any Soviet attempt to expand towards the western part of the continent. They were not wrong and the other allies knew that too.

At first France looked at NATO with suspicion because it would have included Germany in a military alliance. It meant that a demilitarized country would have participated in a common defense organization. Soon France realized that the Soviet advance was even more threatening than a German renaissance, so they accepted to be part of NATO. Considering their strategic culture and their historical role in the world, the French wanted to use NATO as a means to reaffirm their power and influence lost after World War II. This was not an easy task as some disagreements started to emerge between France, the UK and the US. These disagreements worsened during the Suez crisis: the UK reinforced its “special relationship” with the US that included a common nuclear program. Looking for a more independence from the US, France started to develop its own nuclear weapon.

In 1954 France had already begun to give impetus to a nuclear military program under the 4th Republic government of Pierre Mendes-France. When De Gaulle came into power in 1958 the triangular relationship between the US, France and the UK was already unsteady. France was in an unfavorable position being excluded from the Washington-London nuclear alliance. To bring France once again into the game De Gaulle made a declaration of nuclear independence in 1958: he behaved as if Paris had already acquired a complete arsenal although France only detonated its first bomb in 1960. This was a strategy to participate in the US-UK nuclear alliance on an equal basis. De Gaulle proposed a triangular cooperation sending a memorandum to Prime Minister Macmillan and President Eisenhower.

Nixon and De Gaulle meeting at the Elysée Palace with Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, President Eisenhower, Chancellor Adenauer and French Prime Minister Michel Debré

Nixon and De Gaulle meeting at the Elysée Palace

London and Washington reacted as if this was a challenge to their dominant position so the cooperation project De Gaulle had hoped for failed. After this episode France’s mistrust could only increase: De Gaulle considered NATO to be dominated by the United States to an unacceptable degree. In particular, he was concerned that in case of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe, the US would not help its European Allies. According to De Gaulle, France should never entrust its defense and therefore its existence to a foreign and thus unreliable protector. So De Gaulle solidified the initial vision of the French army into the well-defined concept of a fully independent “Force de Frappe” capable of protecting France from a Soviet or other foreign attack, independently from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

In 1966 De Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s military command (Letter from Charles De Gaulle to Lyndon B. Johnson) for three main reasons: firstly his attempt to create a security directorate with the UK and the US had failed. Secondly he was seeking a more independent role in order to regain France’s international status. Thirdly De Gaulle disagreed with the new NATO’s strategic doctrine, which the US managed to impose. In fact the US changed its strategy from “massive retaliation” to “flexible response”: they would not necessarily retaliate with a nuclear strike to a conventional attack. Instead France was in favor of a nuclear response to any aggression against its “vital interests”, whatever the means employed to attack her. Washington and London were clear about the circumstances that would constitute a particular threshold but unclear about the response, not reveiling whether they would have answered to an attack with nuclear or conventional weapons. Instead Paris was vague about the exact threshold (“vital interests”), but clear about the response. This reflected a different conception of international law between these three states: if the UK and the US were traditionally engaged in ensuring the respect of international legal rules and treaties, France was much more concerned about its sovereignty and national security. These differences ended in a break down in the relationship between France and NATO, starting a period of an independent defense project.

As history teaches us France’s efforts to change NATO’s power structure were unsuccessful. Nevertheless the French never got isolated after leaving the NATO’s military command structure and continued to participate in the Atlantic Alliance. On March 11, 2009 President Nicolas Sarkozy declared that he wanted France to become a full member of NATO once again, 43 years after its withdrawal (French parliament approves plan to rejoin NATO). The decision was approved a week later by the Parliament. “Because it is in her interest and because it is her choice, France will take her full place, that of an ally both free and in solidarity, independent but engaged, a country that assumes all its responsibilities, everywhere and speaking to everyone, at the service of our values and of peace,” Mr. Sarkozy said.[1] (France- NATO history from the BBC: President Sarkozy brings France back into Nato)

The decision to rejoin NATO’s military command structure is part of a larger shift in French defense and security policy that took place in 2008. France wanted to reintegrate in NATO for purposes of European security. Yet President Sarkozy insisted that the new doctrine represents a reorientation rather than a curbing of French ambitions. The doctrine makes clear that France’s nuclear arsenal will be maintained and kept solely under French command. [2]

NATO Ministers of Defense and of Foreign Affairs meet at NATO headquarters in Brussels

NATO Ministers of Defense and of Foreign Affairs meet at NATO headquarters in Brussels




[3] Tertrais, Bruno (2007): A Comparison Between US, UK and French Nuclear Policies and Doctrines. [ accessed on 24 February 2014]

Authors: Chiara Villani, Dora Czeferner, Nike Pulda, Oreste Bocco



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