Internal documents report the French Army to be on the verge of “falling apart”, according to the Telegraph. Less than half of the army’s Leclerc main battle tanks, and less than 40% of its helicopter fleet, are operational. This gives a new spin on French reluctance to do more of the heavy lifting (i.e., combat operations) in Afghanistan. Here was I putting it down to political reluctance. But perhaps it’s as much a case of “can’t do” as “won’t do”.
I did quite a bit of focus group work with French officers in the Ecole Militaire in Paris last year. This is a true war-fighting military. Years of intervention in Africa have given French officer corps combat experience. And crucially, this is a military itching to get back to war. Especially as their last big punch-up, the 1991 Gulf War, proved to be a bit of an embarrassment: the French only able to deploy a light division that was tasked with guarding the far left flank of the coalition advance into Kuwait. This was in contrast to the British 1st Armoured Division, which joined the US VII Corps assault on the Iraqi armoured reserves and Republican Guard.
The French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, is about to announced a major defense review. But this is unlikely to result in the investment that is so solely needed in the military. Indeed, it is likely to recommend cutting French operational forces from 50,000 to 30,000 troops. At the same time, the Guardian reports that Sarkozy is pushing for the creation of a permanent European joint operational headquarters to based outside Brussels. As a fig leaf, and to signal that this is not the usual Gaulic NATO bashing, Sarkozy is offering to bring France back into NATO’s military command. Given the lack of real commitment in Paris to the military, the British are right to be wary of this French proposal.
Contrary to the google joke, France has a proud military tradition. More to the point, it has a military with the skill and spirit to fight wars, and win them. At a time when the West so desperately needs more combat capable forces to secure peace in Afghanistan (and Iraq, eventually, perhaps), it is such a damn shame that the French are letting their fine military go to the wall.