Country Profiles: France

France flag NPT: 1992
CTBT: 1998
First Test: 1958
First Hydrogen Bomb: 1968

Current number of nuclear warheads:
Strategic: ~450
Tactical: ~20
Total: ~470

 
Last Updated: 2/27/02

Although active in nuclear research in the prewar years, France fell far behind after World War II, and was kept out of the British-American partnership. However, development of nuclear reactors proceeded, and after humiliating defeats in Indochina and the Suez crisis, French planners strengthened their resolve to construct nuclear weapons. In 1958, with the election of Charles DeGaulle, a strong proponent of acquiring nuclear weapons, the program accelerated, culminating in 1960 with France’s first nuclear test. The plutonium bomb detonated in the initial test had a yield of 60-70kt, the largest first test ever by a nuclear country. Development continued, and the first thermonuclear (fusion) test occurred in 1968.

France’s first ballistic missiles became operational in August of 1971. However, in 1996, the missiles were decommissioned, leaving the French nuclear deterrent as a “dyad” of submarine and airborne weapons. The nuclear submarine program began in 1972, with the commissioning of the first of the Redoubtable class submarines. These were later converted to L’Inflexible series submarines beginning in 1985. The third generation Le Triomphant class, designed to gradually replace L’Inflexible class, was introduced in 1997. Currently the French SSBN fleet consists of two L’Inflexible and two Le Triomphant submarines, each carrying 16 nuclear-equipped missiles. In the air leg of France’s nuclear deterrent, gravity bombs have been replaced by ASMP supersonic missiles. These are carried by land- or carrier-based jets (Mirage 2000N and Super Entendard, respectively). France currently maintains roughly 470 deployed nuclear warheads, a number which is expected to decline to around 400 by 2005. In 1996, France strongly supported the CTBT and signed an agreement with the United States to work together on issues of stockpile stewardship.

French nuclear strategy is closely tied to its own national image. During the Cold War, the development of a nuclear force allowed France to take a more independent stance from the United States while still guarding against threats from the Soviet Union. France’s membership in the nuclear club has also given it standing as a “world power” and differentiated it from other middle-sized countries, a status which French leadership is loathe to abandon. French leaders also believe that their nuclear arsenal helped to maintain peace in Europe and will continue to do so. Defense of this nuclear capacity has been fierce at times: in 1985 French secret agents bombed the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior, which had sailed to the pacific to protest nuclear testing.

France signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1992, but conducted a series of tests in 1995-96. Although Prime Minister Chirac declared that these would be France’s last-ever nuclear tests, they still generated public criticism. With the Cold War over, many have questioned France’s continued possession of nuclear weapons. However, France will consider disarmament talks only after the two superpowers have reduced their arsenals to a comparable level, and only if threats from weapons of mass destruction seem to be under control.

Resources:

Declared Nuclear States – Britain, from Nuclear Weapons Frequently Asked Questions, by Carey Sublette
http://www.fas.org/nuke/hew/Nwfaq/Nfaq7-2.html#france

French and British Nuclear Forces, “NRDC Nuclear Notebook,” in Bulletin of Atomic Scientists September/October 2000.
http://www.thebulletin.org/issues/nukenotes/so00nukenote.html

French Nuclear Weapons Policy after the Cold War
http://www.iris-france.org/francais/rdpresse/french%20nuclear.html

France’s Nuclear Weapons, from High Energy Weapons Archive
http://www.fas.org/nuke/hew/France/index.html

Philip Gordon. “France and Virtual Nuclear Deterrence,” in Michael J. Mazarr Nuclear Weapons in a Transformed World (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 1997, pp. 219-228