French defence cuts spike hostile guns

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Howls of anguish and indignation were to be heard the length and breadth of France yesterday, as the Defence Minister, Charles Millon, spelt out details of precisely how the French defence sector is to be slimmed down and restructured. "He's gone further even than Wellington, who cost us 32 regiments at Waterloo," said an influential Gaullist MP, Jacques Baumel, in response to confirmation that 38 regiments were to be disbanded by 1999.

The political and economic discretion with which the cuts have been drawn up, however, will weaken the effectiveness of the gathering protests. So too will the fact that military units and institutions in France are generally sited with as much of an eye to political as to logistical advantage: their survival is, therefore, seen as a local economic issue, rather than a question of national heritage and glory. Without this national and highly emotive aspect that always dogs comparable military cuts in Britain, the restructuring is likely to proceed very much as planned.

The cuts include the closure of three air bases and four military hospitals, while the military sports centre is to be transferred and centralised at Fontainebleau. Up to 40 military training establishments - including academies at Strasbourg, Clermont Ferrand and Metz - are to be closed by 1998.

Units stationed in Germany will be subjected to particularly sweeping cuts, as 11 of 14 regiments - 17,000 out of 20,000 servicemen and civilians - are due to be disbanded or transferred by the end of the century.

As the chairman of the Socialist group on the parliamentary defence committee, Jean-Michel Boucheron, grudgingly admitted, however, the cuts had a certain "logic".

The Defence Minister has wielded a scalpel rather than an axe. He has ensured where possible that the towns and cities affected by the loss of regiments and military establishments retain at least one of their existing military institutions, so limiting the economic damage.