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Sarkozy sets out to reform military amid criticism
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21:29, June 18, 2008

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French President Nicolas Sarkozy has unveiled major reforms in the French armed forces involving cutbacks and fully reintegrating the country back into the NATO command amid growing criticism, the French media has reported.

Giving a major speech outlining his defense strategy for the next 15 years Tuesday, President Sarkozy said that he would cut over 54,000 positions within the armed forces as part of greater efforts to free up resources "to develop state-of-the-art intelligence" to counter the ever increasing threat of terrorism.

In his remarks, the president, who has been working quietly to bring France closer to the United States in defense matters, also confirmed his plans to return France to the integrated NATO command after a 42-year break.

France left the cold-war era allied supreme command in 1966 after Charles de Gaulle said that it was dominated by the United States.

"The most immediate threat today is that of a terrorist attack," said the head of state, adding: "the threat is there, it is real and we know that tomorrow it can take on a new form, even more serious, with nuclear, chemical and biological means."

But, even before the ink dries on his speech, critics from both within the ruling Union for a Popular Movement and the mainly leftist opposition have began attacking the plans as weakening France's defenses.

On Tuesday shortly after the speech, a dozen parliamentarians from the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) signed a petition demanding that the plan be put on hold or that the government provides "compensation" for the regions whose bases will be closed down.

On his part, veteran socialist politician Francois Hollande expressed deep regrets, saying that the plan meant that the "budget" had won over the "strategic vision" in terms of France's defense policies.

Even leading French labor unions were not left behind in criticizing President Sarkozy's plans, describing them as a "destruction of the country's defense structure" and calling on civilian defense ministry personnel to implement "work stoppages and hold demonstrations on Wednesday."

Telling off his critics, the head of state said: "We must choose" between "an army which makes land-use planning and is not operational" and an army "that ensures the safety and security of the French people."

In addition, President Sarkozy moved to allay fears that France would be usurped by its more endowed trans-Atlantic partner the United States, stressing that the country would insist on remaining "an independent ally" by keeping its nuclear deterrent forces under national control.

"We can renew our relations with NATO without fear for our independence and without running the risk of being unwillingly dragged into a war," said President Sarkozy, who also said that joining the NATO command, which could happen some time in 2009, will also depend on whether the European Union will take decisive measures to shore up its defenses.

Addressing a press conference in Washington D.C., White House national security spokesman Gordon Johndroe said the United States welcomed France's announcement with open arms, as did NATO.

Rejoining the military command is mostly seen as a symbolic gesture that would pave the way for the appointment of several French generals to NATO military headquarters and to the alliance's defense planning committee.

This move has also run into problems with left-leaning opposition politicians who say that it has confirmed a shift toward a pro-US stance under Sarkozy and a loss of the independence that has been a hallmark of French foreign policy for decades.

In his speech, Sarkozy, who announced a "massive investment in intelligence gathering" making use of satellites, drones and other airborne surveillance equipment, said that France will spend a total of 377 billion euros (about 583 billion U.S. dollars) on defense between 2009 and 2020.

With the largest standing army within the 27-member European Union, the French head of state has for the first time made homeland security part of France's defense strategy to confront what he described as "threats from terrorism, cyber-attacks and natural disasters."

In addition, President Sarkozy has also pledged to pursue his drive to build a 60,000-strong European defense force and announced plans to reconfigure French military bases in Africa.

"It is not France's calling to keep armed forces in Africa for ever. There will be a reconfiguration of resources in this part of the world," said Sarkozy, nevertheless taking time to clarify that this did not in anyway amount to completely abandoning the continent militarily.

Source: Xinhua

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