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France steps out on path to military reform

The preliminary cost of President Chirac's plans to modernise France's military and defence establishments became clear yesterday when draft legislation was published giving details of the government's six-year reform plan.

As well as providing for the switch to a professional army, the legislation stipulates numerous delays and cuts to existing military equipment programmes, including the joint Franco-German Tiger helicopter project.

In an undisguised attempt to ward off dissent inside the armed forces, the defence minister, Charles Millon, accompanied publication of the draft law with a lengthy letter to all military personnel, listing improvements to retirement, redeployment and voluntary redundancy terms. Pay rises were promised for those who stayed on.

Among delays and cuts in equipment programmes are a one-third reduction in orders for new Leclerc tanks, coupled with a reduction of more than half (from 930 to 420) in the number of battle tanks the army will have by 2015. Completion of France's projected new aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, is postponed until after 2002; and only two of Dassault's Rafale fighter jets are to be bought before 2002, although the order for a total of 45 stands. The first deliveries of Tiger helicopters are postponed from 2001 to 2003, and the order cut by almost half, from 215 to 110. France had already announced that it was pulling out of the European Future Large Aircraft project.

The cuts are intended to keep credits budgeted for the defence sector - operations and equipment - down to 185bn francs (pounds 24bn) a year between now and 2002, a reduction of Ffr20bn compared with 1995.

The draft legislation presented yesterday is envisaged as the first part of a two-phase defence modernisation plan, which is to be completed by 2015.

As well as the switch to a professional army, the first phase of the reforms includes restructuring of the armed forces to facilitate rapid overseas deployment and joint operations with European and Nato units, and a rationalisation of the defence industries to improve their competitiveness on the international market.

Together, the reforms are described as "the most important since the reforms of 1958, under General de Gaulle".

Professionalisation and restructuring will entail a loss of about one- third in armed forces manpower, the bulk of the 150,000 reduction coming from the army. A decision is expected later this month on whether conscription will be abolished or replaced by a different form ofcompulsory national service.