France relies on conscript troops: Having fewer regular troops is not a sure route to efficiency. Will Bennett reports

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FRANCE spends a smaller percentage of its gross domestic product on defence than Britain but has more tanks, more combat aircraft and about 200,000 more servicemen and women.

But the French have not discovered a magic formula for getting value for money and spend pounds 538 a year per head of population on defence, compared to the British figure of pounds 508. The reason for the disparity in size is that conscripts still comprise the majority of their armed forces.

Although the French army is 280,000-strong, compared to 119,000 soldiers in Britain, this figure includes only 107,000 regulars. Likewise, the French air force with 93,000 men and women, and the navy with 65,000, are both larger than their British counterparts but have fewer regulars.

The rest are conscripts serving for 10 months, who cannot serve outside France unless war is declared. This produced problems in the Gulf war when national servicemen had to be weeded out of units going to the Middle East and were replaced by regulars. But despite this, and the fact that they are not as well trained, conscripts are much cheaper. Ian Kemp, land forces consultant for Jane's Defence Weekly, said: 'They are paid less than regulars, they do not have to have pensions and costs are lower because their families do not have to be provided for.'

Sometimes what appears to be a strength on paper turns out to be a weakness on closer examination. For example, the French have 1,350 main battle tanks, compared to just over 1,000 British, but most of these are the ageing AMX-30s, while we have more than 400 of the more modern Challengers.

Both countries have two operational aircraft carriers but the French ones are much older than the British, although they are to be replaced. The French carrier Clemenceau is so elderly that when it was sent to back up forces in the former Yugoslavia, newspaper cartoons showed sailors towing it behind a pedalo.

However, the French have a clear advantage in both strike aircraft and attack helicopters, while much equipment, such as the Milan anti-tank weapon and the Multiple Launch Rocket System, is used by both countries.

But simultaneous defence cuts and increased overseas commitments have produced overstretch problems in France. As well as 25,000 troops in Germany, there are another 40,000 abroad, many with the United Nations. As in Britain, officers and some right-wing politicians are claiming that the cuts have gone too far.

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