Chirac keeps forces cuts under wraps

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The Independent Online
Less than 48 hours before the grand military parade that traditionally marks France's national holiday on 14 July, the country's top brass assembled at the defence ministry in Paris to hear details of swingeing cuts in military programmes and the imminent disbanding of nearly 40 regiments. The news was broken by President Jacques Chirac at a reception for more than 800 senior officers which was held behind firmly closed doors.

The sensitivity of yesterday's occasion was such that the Elysee denied until the last moment that it was taking place.

The cuts are partly a result of the reduction in the defence budget decided by the French government. However, they also reflect President Chirac's decision to abolish conscription with effect from 1999 and restructure the armed forces along more "modern" lines.

According to advance information leaked to the French press, 38 army regiments - out of a total of 180 - will be disbanded between 1997 and 1999. A dozen air bases will be closed or amalgamated (out of 44), and 11 arms and ammunition depots - out of 39 - will be abolished. The navy is expected to lose 20 per cent of its land premises.

In addition, the French troop presence in Germany will be sharply reduced from its current level of 15,000 men. As the left- of-centre daily Liberation commented yesterday, "it is politically less costly to close down a regiment in Baden-Baden than in Colmar" (on the French side of the border).

One knock-on effect of these reductions is expected to be a restructuring of the French component of the mainly French-German Eurocorps. Officials insist, however, that France's commitment to the Eurocorps, regarded by some as the kernel of a future European army, is undiminished.

A few months ago, the prospect of any change in the French contribution to Eurocorps might have caused diplomatic difficulties between France and Germany. But that risk is considerably lessened now that Germany's economic difficulties are necessitating a re-think of military spending and structures in Bonn.

The details given to the top brass in Paris yesterday will be conveyed to French ministry and local officials and then to the wider public next week by the defence minister, Charles Millon. Mr Chirac may, however, allude to them in the television interview he is due to give after Sunday's military parade.

The French President last met the top brass five months ago, shortly after his televised announcement on the likely abolition of conscription. Then, he called on them to "rally round" the military reforms "without fail", as though anticipating resistance. Now, there are clear divisions in the military, both on the wisdom of abolishing conscription, and on the rationale for the reforms.

Political sniping about winners and losers from the latest cuts has already started, with an (unnamed) official at the general staff quoted as saying: "You can tell in whose regions the regiments were stationed. There's no question of touching the regions of the 'three big ones': the President, the Prime Minister and the Defence Minister'." The Correze (Mr Chirac's country fiefdom in the Massif Central), Bordeaux (where Alain Juppe is mayor) and the Landes in the south-west (where he comes from), as well as Provence (where Mr Millon chairs the regional council) are likely to be exempt from the most severe cuts.

Other regions fear they could be blighted by their lack of political clout in Paris and are trying to make their voices heard. Scarcely a day goes by without a demonstration in one of the two northern ports, Cherbourg and Brest, which expect cutbacks in naval orders and large job losses. Smaller towns, where the garrison is a major source of income, are staging "dead town" days where everything shuts down for half a day to show what the town could be like without its military income.