As many observers have noticed in the past eight years, France was fairly comfortable with the Bush administration's stance on nuclear issues in international forums and found itself in agreement with many of the hard-line positions taken by the United States in nonproliferation and disarmament negotiations. However, since the Obama administration overtly and explicitly embraced the goal of a "nuclear-weapon-free world," the picture seems to have changed. With London and Washington leading the way, and Beijing and Moscow not being shy of speaking about nuclear abolition (notwithstanding their policies often to the contrary), is France the odd country out in the debate? Yes and no.

What is true is that France is currently the only one of the five nuclear-weapon states that does not openly support total nuclear disarmament per se, in isolation from the broader strategic framework and Article 6 of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Paris remains skeptical about the idea that emphasizing abolition is needed to persuade NPT parties to subscribe to tighter nonproliferation norms, such as the International Atomic Energy Agency's Additional Protocol. French officials are puzzled by the connection made by some Obama administration officials between the allegedly needed "vision" of abolition and reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism. And French analysts – including this author – are keen to point out that there is an inherent contradiction between moving effectively towards abolition and maintaining, at the same time, a technically, operationally, and politically credible nuclear deterrent. In other words, it is by no means certain that you can have your cake and eat it – take concrete steps towards abolition and  "maintain a safe, secure and effective arsenal to deter any adversary," as President Obama promised in Prague.[1] London may soon find itself embroiled in this contradiction due to large expenses that will be needed to replace its Trident submarines.

France's reluctance to go much further on the rhetoric of nuclear abolition is linked to the fact that it has taken unprecedented decisions in dismantling its nuclear weapons testing site and fissile production material facilities. Such concrete gestures have had no equivalent so far elsewhere and it would be hard to blame the French for expecting others to follow suit, rather than escalating their rhetoric on nuclear disarmament. (President Sarkozy argued in March 2008 that "reciprocity" should be the basis of collective security and disarmament.[2]) Paris now observes much more transparency in its nuclear policies than was the case in the past by opening its former testing and fissile material production facilities to international visits (including by non-governmental organizations and journalists), and announcing publicly the total number of its nuclear weapons ("less than 300," said Sarkozy) – something no other nuclear-endowed country has done so far, including the United States and Russia, whose negotiations focus only on operationally available strategic weapons. So Paris's discomfort with loose talk about nuclear disarmament stems from its willingness to emphasize – in a very un-French manner, so to speak – facts over rhetoric, and realities on the ground over pie-in-the-sky ambitions.

But a closer examination of the strategic and diplomatic realities show that France is not as isolated as many would believe.

First, neither Washington nor London will agree to concrete gestures that would diminish their own security. This is not primarily about numbers. The United States can probably afford to live with a much smaller nuclear arsenal and move – along with Russia – towards an arsenal numbering in the hundreds, instead of thousands (though few nations would want Beijing to be the number one nuclear power). But in the field of nuclear disarmament, the next steps – those that would really commit Washington to move towards nuclear abolition, such as a divestment in the nuclear complex and force modernization – would be the hardest ones. A drastic reduction of the role of U.S. (or U.K.) nuclear weapons, such as a move to a no-first-use posture, would be conditioned to an improvement of global security conditions. It is hard to see how this could happen right now given ongoing proliferation threats, the hardening of Moscow's positions, the lingering possibility of a major crisis with Beijing, and the requirements of a credible extended deterrent from the point of view of both the allies and the adversaries. Possible "alternatives" to nuclear weapons – to deter nuclear blackmail, biological weapons use, or major conventional threats to allies – remain unconvincing given the limitations and costs of missile defense, as well as the dubious historical record of conventional deterrence. While there may be a "rhetorical gap" between Paris and its two nuclear allies, there is no real "doctrinal gap" between them.

Second, in the past eight months, three little-noticed statements have shown that Paris is much more in agreement with its partners than often seems to be the case. In December 2008, the 27 members of the European Union agreed to a common Action Plan on disarmament, which was largely based on Sarkozy's March 2008 Cherbourg speech. In July 2009, Paris and London agreed in a common statement that they "share similar ambitions in terms of arms control and disarmament, notably in the nuclear sphere," are "committed to seeking a safer world," and will "promote the European Action Plan on Disarmament (...), in particular at the 2010 NPT Review Conference."[3] Most importantly, a few days later, the G8 heads of state and governments agreed for the first time on common language on nuclear abolition: "We are all committed to seeking a safer world for all and to creating the conditions for a world without nuclear weapons, in accordance with the goals of the NPT."[4] This important sentence was seen in Paris as a key milestone on the path towards reconciliation of the positions of the three allied nuclear powers. In this regard, France has no problem with the careful and perhaps deliberately ambiguous wording of President Obama in his Prague speech (a "commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons").

France will continue to insist that the goal should not be disarmament in itself but increased security; that abolition could only be conceivable in a much safer world, where nuclear and non-nuclear threats have radically diminished; that its position is in line with the letter and the spirit of Article 6 of the NPT, which commits all parties to the Treaty; and that there should be no disconnect between the disarmament rhetoric, the "real world" of nuclear proliferation, and increased reliance on nuclear weapons by some countries – especially since abolition rhetoric not followed by deeds could create frustrations and end up backfiring diplomatically. But an agreement among the three allied nuclear powers on language, policies, and practical steps for the 2010 NPT Review Conference and beyond does not seem to be an elusive goal.

Bruno Tertrais is a Senior Research Fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique.


1. Remarks of President Obama, Prague, April 5, 2009.

2. Speech by President Sarkozy in Cherbourg at the occasion of the presentation of SSBN Le Terrible, March 21, 2008.

3. Joint French-UK Summit – Declaration on Defence and Security, July 6, 2009.

4. L'Aquila Statement on Non-Proliferation, July 8, 2009.