PARIS - President Nicolas Sarkozy, citing Iran's nuclear program, said yesterday that he will cut France's nuclear arsenal to fewer than 300 warheads, seeking to balance the defense of the nation against budgetary and strategic considerations.
In his first major speech on France's nuclear program, Sarkozy also urged the United States and China to commit fully to a treaty banning tests of nuclear weapons. He shifted somewhat from the nuclear doctrine of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, by being slightly more ambiguous about the circumstances that might lead France to employ its nuclear weapons.
Sarkozy's decision to reveal the rough size of France's arsenal appeared aimed at prodding other nuclear powers to be equally transparent.
Many of France's nuclear weapons are carried aboard submarines, with the rest on warplanes. Sarkozy said the airborne component would be cut by one-third, specifying that that included nuclear weapons, missiles, and planes.
"After this reduction, our arsenal will include fewer than 300 nuclear warheads," he said. "That is half the maximum number of warheads that we had during the Cold War."
He also said none of France's weapons is targeted at any nation.
France's airborne nuclear weapons are carried by three air force squadrons of Mirage 2000N and another navy flotilla of upgraded Super Etendard jets. They are all to be replaced by high-tech Rafale jets, in air force and navy versions.
François Heisbourg, a French defense specialist, said the air fleet modernization allowed the size of the nuclear arsenal to be trimmed. "When you have better planes taking over for older planes, you can afford to reduce the numbers," said Heisbourg, special adviser to the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research think tank.
The Federation of American Scientists, which tracks nuclear arsenals around the globe, said in a status report for 2008 that France had 348 strategic nuclear weapons. It lists 193 for China and 160 for Britain, all far less than the United States, with 3,575, and Russia, with 3,239.
Since Sarkozy is France's first leader born after World War II, his reaffirmation of the need for nuclear weapons, despite France's budgetary difficulties, was significant. It marked a continuation of French policy despite a generational shift in political leadership.
He called the nuclear arsenal "the nation's life insurance." Sarkozy noted that while France does not face a foreseeable threat of invasion, other dangers exist. He singled out Iran's development of its missile forces and the "grave suspicions" surrounding its nuclear program, which France and other Western powers fear is aimed at developing weapons.
"The security of Europe is at stake," Sarkozy said.
Donning his commander in chief cap also was part of a new effort by Sarkozy to appear more presidential. Following a divorce in office, then a quick marriage to former model and singer Carla Bruni, and outbursts of temper, Sarkozy has faced criticism for behavior perceived as unbecoming for a head of state.
Sarkozy gave his speech in the northern port of Cherbourg to workers building a nuclear submarine, The Terrible, the fourth in a new generation of nuclear-powered and armed French submarines. The Terrible will undergo tests in the Atlantic in 2009 and go into service a year after that, carrying new M51 nuclear missiles with multiple warheads and a longer range than current missiles.
Sarkozy used his announcement of French weapons cuts to drive home calls for other nations to dismantle nuclear test sites and for negotiations on treaties to ban short- and intermediate-range ground-to-ground missiles and to ban the manufacturing of fissile material for nuclear weapons.
He also pressured China and the United States to ratify a nuclear test ban treaty they signed in 1996. France ratified it a decade ago, and Russia is a signatory to the treaty.