TCS Daily

Chirac's Nuclear Option

By John Rosenthal - February 6, 2006 12:00 AM

Some months ago, when Julien Dray, spokesman for the French Socialist Party, was asked what he thought of a certain speech by Jacques Chirac. "Frankly," Dray replied, "I don't even listen any more." In France, this has become a common response; the indifference to Chirac's views in fact spans the political spectrum. The massive rejection by the French of an EU "Constitution" that Chirac had strenuously promoted - offering grim prophecies of disaster in the event of its failure - made this indifference blatantly obvious. Chirac's disappearing act during the riots in the French banlieues last fall - he did not even address the events publicly until the violence had already been under way for 10 days - did nothing to restore his stature in the eyes of the French public. Nonetheless, when last month - in what French journalist Luc Rosenzweig described as "a frantic effort to make us believe that he still exists" - Chirac gave a much-trumpeted speech on French nuclear deterrence, the world's media took considerable notice.

This is all the more astonishing inasmuch as, barring success in a highly unlikely bid for a third term of office, Chirac is at this point, in effect, a lame-duck president. (In this connection, the media attention devoted to Chirac's improbable ramblings on nuclear deterrence provides a curious contrast to the virtual blackout reserved - not only, needless to say, in the European media, but also most of the "old" American media - for George Bush's recent series of speeches on the conduct of the war on Islamic terrorism.) In his speech, Chirac made frequent and characteristically pompous allusion to his executive powers in matters of defense: seemingly brandishing the threat of personally putting finger to button should he esteem that the circumstances require. If this is truly his wish, however, he has barely more than a year to do so. After that, his ideas on French nuclear deterrence will, for all practical purposes, be about as relevant as those of the present author. Thus, contrary to a headline in the International Herald Tribune, "France" did not by virtue of Chirac's speech "broaden its nuclear doctrine." Jacques Chirac is, after all, merely the President of the French Republic, not Louis XIV.

Virtually all the English-language coverage of Chirac's speech seized upon just two aspects: a grammatically jumbled set of three sentences seeming to suggest the possibility of a "non-conventional" response to a terrorist attack on French interests and, although Chirac did not mention any potential adversaries by name, what was taken to be an implicit threat to Iran. Chirac was thus cast - incongruously, as will be seen momentarily - in the role of an ally of the US, both in its war on Islamic terrorism as in its discordant relations with Iran's theocratic regime. Never mind that Chirac's apparent threat, as several commentators have pointed out, will only provide the Iranians with a high-profile pretext for continuing their presumptive push for nuclear weapons.

In fact, Chirac only introduced the theme of terrorism into his reflections in order to downplay its importance, thus leading one to wonder whether the otherwise mind-bending suggestion of a nuclear response to a terrorist attack might not have been merely the latest in a series of, as Rosenzweig put it, "presidential slips of the tongue." "The struggle against terrorism is one of our priorities," Chirac said, before adding: "But...just because a new threat appears, it does not make all the other ones disappear." And while Chirac, under the heading of an emerging "regional power," seems indeed to have threatened to pulverize Iran, he also in the very same breath highlighted France's capacity to strike what he called a "major power." Indeed, the continuing potential for conflict with such "major powers" was at least as prominent a theme of Chirac's reflections as terrorism or merely "regional" powers. Chirac allowed that France - "it is true" - is not "at the moment" the object of a "direct" threat from any major power. But he made perfectly clear that, on his assessment, this situation could easily prove ephemeral and was thus no reason to let down one's nuclear guard.

This theme was, however, ignored - seemingly even avoided - in the English-language reports. Thus Chirac said:

We are in a position to inflict damage of all kinds on a major power that would want to attack interests we would regard as vital. Against a regional power, our choice is not between inaction or annihilation. The flexibility and reactivity of our strategic forces would allow us to respond directly against its centers of power, its capacity to act.

And the Washington Post reported:

"Against a regional power, our choice is not between inaction and destruction," Chirac said..., "The flexibility and reaction of our strategic forces allow us to respond directly against the centers of power."

Moreover, Chirac provided all the hints required for his audience to understand the identity of at least one of the "major powers" he had in mind: namely, the United States. Even Chirac's allusion to the threat to peace represented by countries "spreading radical ideas" about a "confrontation of civilizations" will - after years of ideological conditioning associating Samuel Huntington's famous volume of roughly that name with US foreign policy - be more readily understood by Chirac's French public as a reference to George Bush's America than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran. More to the point, consider the following passage:

Of course, it is not a foregone conclusion that the relations between the different "poles of power" will sink into hostility in the near future. It is, moreover, in order to meet this danger that we should work toward an international order founded on the rule of law and collective security, toward a more just and more representative order. And that we should encourage all our important partners to make the choice of cooperation rather than that of confrontation. But we are never completely safe: neither from a revolution in the international system, nor from a strategic surprise. All of history teaches us this.

No one conversant with Chirac's neo-Gaullist style of discourse could fail to hear the multiple allusions to the United States in the above. Just who, after all, is this ambiguously "important partner" that France has to encourage - or even "obligate" [engager] - to make the "choice of cooperation rather than confrontation"? The reference to the "poles of power" likewise leaves little room for doubt. "Poles of power" is a programmatic term of neo-Gaullist discourse. According to the latter, in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union and hence of the "bipolarity" characterizing the Cold War, the United States remained the single "pole of power" in a "unipolar" [sic] world. It is in order to correct this, in the neo-Gaullist vision of things, perilous situation that an independent European military capability has to be developed, thus rendering the EU itself an alternative "pole of power" to the United States. Not coincidentally, Chirac's speech ends with a plea for the development of just such a unified European military capability, at whose service he pledges to put France's nuclear forces. It is not only Chirac's rhetoric - which, while emphasizing the increasing "imbrication" of the interests of the EU countries, carefully avoids mention of the transatlantic relation - that makes clear the practical implications of this project for NATO. France's recent actions in blocking a planned NATO-EU meeting on anti-terrorism efforts does so as well.

Whereas the "old" American media remained resolutely obtuse to the point of Chirac's speech, evidently the French authorities themselves wanted it to be at least partially understood even by the American public. Thus, France's state-controlled AFP news service (for details of the AFP's relation to the French state, see here and here) issued its own English-language report on the speech. The AFP's helpful title: "Chirac's nuclear warning a signal to the US".

(Note: a complete English translation of Chirac's speech is provided on the official website of the French Presidency here. All citations in the above article have been translated by the author from the original French. Visitors to the latter page might notice the AFP logo/link in the lower left corner that graces it, as well as all the other French-language pages of the Presidential website.)

John Rosenthal's writings on international politics have appeared in Policy Review, the Opinion Journal, Les Temps Modernes and Merkur. He is the editor of the Transatlantic Intelligencer ( His email is


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