President Jacques Chirac has dropped a political bombshell by threatening to retaliate with nuclear strikes against any state found to be responsible for a large-scale terrorist attack on France.
In the biggest shift in French nuclear doctrine for 40 years, M. Chirac revealed that the force de frappe - the French nuclear deterrent - had already been reconfigured to allow it to destroy the "power centres" of any state which sponsored a terrorist assault.
He also raised once again an idea that he first floated in 1995 that the British and French nuclear deterrents should be rededicated to the defence of the entire European Union. In future, he said, France should regard its allies and its sources of strategic supplies - in other words oil - as covered by its nuclear umbrella.
The President insisted that fundamental French nuclear policy would remain unchanged. There would be no battlefield use of nuclear weapons and no "first strike". Nonetheless, his speech yesterday at France's main nuclear submarine base, at Ile Longue, near Brest, in Brittany, took French defence policy into uncharted waters.
He appeared to imply that any large-scale, state-sponsored terrorist attack on France - whether or not it used weapons of mass destruction - would invite a closely targeted nuclear response from France.
"The leaders of states who use terrorist methods against us, as well as those who consider using in one way or another weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they would expose themselves to a firm and appropriate response on our part," President Chirac said.
"This response could be a conventional one. It might also be of a different kind."
"Against a regional power, we should not have to choose between inaction and obliteration... the flexibility and reactivity of our strategic forces should allow us to respond directly against his power centres, against his capacity to act.
"All our nuclear forces have been reconfigured accordingly. To this end, the number of warheads has been reduced on some missiles on our submarines."
France's nuclear submarines were previously said to have 16 missiles, with six warheads each. Reducing the number of warheads implies the use of smaller nuclear charges, more easily aimed at specific targets.
President Chirac's motives appear to be a mixture of the personal, the electoral and the strategic. Opinion polls suggest that France no longer regards him as a significant player in world or domestic events, and his speech yesterday appears to be an attempt to thrust himself back into the limelight as an experienced world statesman with a finger on the nuclear button.
He may also calculate that the nuclear issue will play badly for his hated former protégé, the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who remains favourite to replace him in the presidential elections next spring.
M. Sarkozy is among a number of figures in France who have begun to question the cost of the French nuclear deterrent, which is estimated at €3bn (£2bn) a year, or 10 per cent of the defence budget, at a time when French public spending faces drastic cuts to meet EU targets.
Beyond all that, however, M. Chirac was attempting to devise a new justification for a nuclear force which he regards as one of the components of France's global influence and one of the proudest achievements of the De Gaulle era.
He was also responding to those - at home and abroad - who suggest that France has no right to lecture would-be nuclear powers such as Iran while it retains its own weapons of mass destruction.
Some commentators suggested that M. Chirac's switch of nuclear policy could take France into dangerous territory. By talking of closely targeted attacks on regional "power centres", the President was making it sound as if the country's "never-to-be-used" nuclear arsenal might be used after all.
The Communist deputy Jacques Brunhes said M. Chirac's position was extremely dangerous: "It can only encourage states which have signed the non-proliferation treaty to opt for military uses of nuclear technology."Reuse content