France may allow 'first strikes' on rogue states in policy shift

France is preparing to change its policy on nuclear weapons to include a threat to unleash first strikes against "rogue states", a newspaper reported yesterday.

The Elysée palace issued only a partial denial of the article in Libération. It said there had been no shift in "nuclear doctrine" since President Jacques Chirac warned two years ago that the independent deterrent - the force de frappe - could be turned against "regional powers" that threatened to use weapons of mass destruction.

Libération, quoting senior military sources, said this policy was under review and a new position would be expressed - possibly in a speech by President Chirac - by the start of next year. The new doctrine might raise the possibility of a "first strike" if France felt threatened by weapons of mass destruction (WMD).

The shift may seem strange in the light of France's refusal to approve the US-led invasion of Iraq, which was justified by American and British allegations that Baghdad was developing nuclear, biological and chemical weapons. But Paris said there was no clear proof that Iraq held such weapons and that, in any case, a military invasion would not set a sensible precedent for controlling the proliferation of WMD.

The debate on a shift in policy, also hinted at in a speech this month by Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the Prime Minister, is partly an answer to domestic criticism that M. Chirac has underplayed the dangers of WMD.

It may also be an attempt to silence grumbles within the French military about the cost of France's nuclear deterrent - €3bn (£2bn), or 10 per cent of all defence spending.

The force de frappe was built by President Charles de Gaulle in the early 1960s to defend France militarily from the Soviet Union and politically from dependence on the United States. France has Mirage and Super Etendard aircraft capable of launching mid-range nuclear missiles and four submarines capable of launching up to 16 intercontinental missiles.

Senior French military officers have questioned the need for the €17bn modernisation of the force de frappe in the next five years.

The former head of the French institute of higher defence studies, General Bernard Norlain, said a shift in doctrine was inevitable. "We have been working under the concept of non-use and deterrence," he said. "We said, 'This weapon is not designed to be used'. Now, faced with a potential enemy that is quite irrational, we are going to have to reverse that concept."

The change in French policy would bring France closer to the new US doctrine expressed in January last year. Defence sources told Libération that France was also looking at the implications of the American review's backing of "first-strike" miniature nuclear weapons, intended to attack command bunkers in "rogue" states.

Since the end of the Cold War, no clear new doctrine has yet been spelt out for Britain's nuclear deterrent, which has roughly the same capacity as that of France.

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