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Does Emmanuel Macron want to make French nuclear deterrence available to Europeans?

Has Head of State Emmanuel Macron changed France's deterrence doctrine to make it available to European defense? A quote mistakenly attributed to a speech delivered on January 30 by the president in Stockholm has made his opponents jump and ignite social networks in far-left and far-right circles.

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Does Emmanuel Macron want to make French nuclear deterrence available to Europeans?

Has Head of State Emmanuel Macron changed France's deterrence doctrine to make it available to European defense? A quote mistakenly attributed to a speech delivered on January 30 by the president in Stockholm has made his opponents jump and ignite social networks in far-left and far-right circles. “By affirming that “France has the responsibility to make its nuclear deterrent capacity available to Europe,” [the president] is making a very clear break with the French deterrence doctrine,” said the LFI deputy. Bastien Lachaud, expert on defense matters at the Insoumis. “Europeanizing our nuclear power is madness,” said on the other side of the spectrum, former presidential candidate (RN) Marine Le Pen. Another ex-suitor, Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, was also worried. “This project is scandalous in every way: risk of war escalation, loss of strategic autonomy and dilution of our sovereignty,” he said. It doesn't matter that the quote is false, as Bastien Lachaud later admitted. “The fact remains that the President of the Republic made remarks whose content is absolutely not consistent with France’s ‘traditional’ nuclear deterrence doctrine,” assured the MP. While the risk of an extension of the Russo-Ukrainian war worries Europe, what is the doctrine of French nuclear deterrence? And did Emmanuel Macron change it?

Five countries belong to the circle of “endowed” powers within the meaning of the Non-Proliferation Treaty: United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom and France. India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea also have nuclear weapons. All have a nuclear deterrence doctrine (not necessarily public) which is based on a double paradoxical principle of ambiguity and precision. To describe the framework for the use of atomic weapons, each word is chosen and weighed to send a message to strategic competitors and make them understand the risks they run in the event of aggression. But the formulations maintain a degree of deliberate vagueness so that a potential aggressor cannot determine exactly the threshold for tipping a conflict from the conventional level to the nuclear stage. Climbing mastery is governed by a subtle grammar.

In France, nuclear deterrence rests in the hands of the head of state who is also head of the armed forces. Traditionally, each newly elected official gives a speech during his mandate to clarify his vision. Emmanuel Macron spoke on February 7, 2020. “If by chance a state leader were to underestimate France's visceral attachment to its freedom and planned to attack our vital interests, whatever they might be be, he must know that our nuclear forces are capable of inflicting absolutely unacceptable damage on his centers of power, that is to say on his nerve centers, political, economic, military,” he declared. “Our nuclear forces have been configured for this with the necessary flexibility and responsiveness. In the event of a misunderstanding of France's determination to preserve its vital interests, a unique and non-renewable nuclear warning could be issued to a state aggressor to clearly indicate that the conflict has just changed its nature and reestablish deterrence. he added. And to specify: “Our nuclear forces play their own deterrent role, particularly in Europe. They strengthen the security of Europe by their very existence and in this respect have an authentically European dimension. On this point, our independence of decision is fully compatible with unwavering solidarity with our European partners. Our commitment to their security and defense is the natural expression of our ever closer solidarity. Let’s be clear: France’s vital interests now have a European dimension.”

To ensure clarity on the nuclear threshold, the definition of France's vital interests is not specified. The shift towards the European dimension of French deterrence does not date from Emmanuel Macron. Just two examples. “We cannot imagine a situation in which the vital interests of one could be threatened without the vital interests of the other also being threatened,” Jacques Chirac said in 1995 about the United Kingdom. “The definition of our vital interests cannot be limited to the national scale alone, because France does not design its defense strategy in isolation, even in the nuclear field,” François Hollande said in 2015. “Who could therefore believe that an aggression, which would jeopardize the survival of Europe, would have no consequences? », he asked. What did Emmanuel Macron say in Sweden? He recalled that “what we define as our vital interests is quintessentially European”. Nothing new then. Also note that the European partners are not publicly requesting French protection. Most of them are already covered by NATO’s nuclear deterrent.

Deterrence specialists have corrected the errors of interpretation that followed the president's speech. “We are very far from a “nuclear umbrella”, or even from a nuclear deterrent extended to Europe, like the extended deterrence towards its allies. France remains sovereign over its deterrence but recognizes an overlap of its vital interests with its neighbors,” analyzed deterrence specialist Héloïse Fayet on X, to respond to the excitement. “We can, however, note an evolution in the context of this proposal: it is not the same thing to express ourselves on the European dimension of French deterrence at the War School in 2020 (before Ukraine) and in Sweden in 2024 (which will join NATO),” added the Ifri researcher. To be precise: the president's remarks are a response to a question and not from his speech.

When it comes to deterrence, speaking out is always dangerous. And the head of state is not infallible. Last year, he caused a stir by appearing to indicate that a Russian tactical nuclear strike against Ukraine would not involve a nuclear response. By giving the feeling of moving away from ambiguity on the escalation, it had generated uncertainty about French doctrine and the Allied determination to support kyiv. He then corrected his remarks. The reference remains his 2020 speech.

Even if it is very sensitive, the nuclear deterrence doctrine is nevertheless intended to be able to evolve to correspond to threats. It is not surprising that since the Cold War, France has adapted to its strategic environment and to the strengthening of its ties with its European partners. But the changes have been slow so as not to upset the balance of deterrence. Faced with these challenges, both the National Rally and France Insoumise are proposing radical alternatives by calling into question France's place within NATO.

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