Chirac announces end to conscription and a smaller, modern army

PRESIDENT Jacques Chirac last night announced the most radical shake

PRESIDENT Jacques Chirac last night announced the most radical shake.up of the French armed forces in decades, when he confirmed that France would abandon its two centuries old tradition of a conscripted army and transform it into a professional army over the next six years.

The country's slimmed down, modernised armed forces, he told the French in a 45 minute television interview, would be highly trained to participate in international operations.

Instead of the difficulties it had experienced in sending even 10,000 soldiers to the Gulf War, France would in future be able to mobilise up to 60,000 troops to serve in any theatre of conflict in the world.

Admitting that the French army was far less effective than Britain's smaller but professional army, the President said that in six years France would have "an army which is at least as good as the British army.

The reform was necessary, he insisted, to cut defence spending, but also because France no longer faced the threat of invasion. Instead it had to be able to respond to challenges to its interests and participate in peace keeping missions in Europe and around the world.

Mr Chirac said that the total numbers serving in ground forces, in the navy, the air force and in the militarised gendarmerie would be reduced from the current half a million to 350,000. The cuts would most heavily affect the country's ground troops, with the disbandment of about one third of the army's 124 regiments.

But he promised that France's commitment to the nascent European army, the Eurocorps, would be unaffected by the changes.

The sweeping reform was headlined a defence "big bang" by the daily newspaper, France-Soir. It came the day after the government announced major changes in the country's armaments industries, with a proposed merger between the two plane manufacturers, Dassault Aviation and Aerospatiale, and the planned privatisation of the state electronic group, Thomson.

Mr Chirac also announced last night that one of the components of France's nuclear defence force its 18 ground to ground missiles, stored in silos on the Albion Plateau in southern France would be closed.

He said that the stock of short range Hades nuclear missiles, which could be fired only as far as Germany, would be dismantled, because there was no longer a need for them since the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Also on the nuclear arsenal, Mr Chirac said that the recent series of six nuclear tests had been technically "perfect".

"We now have the assurance that our weapon is completely dissuasive and reliable for the next 50 years," he said. It would also allow France to reduce its stockpile of nuclear weapons, close its only plant producing plutonium and weapons grade enriched uranium, as well as its Polynesian test sites.

Asked if France was still offering a nuclear umbrella to its European partners, Mr Chirac appeared to play down the idea, saying that at most it would cooperate with its immediate neighbours Germany, Britain and Spain on nuclear issues.

"Even that would be very very complex," he admitted.

A poll published yesterday suggested that abolishing compulsory national service would be highly popular, with 75 per cent in favour and far higher numbers among young people, who view it as a waste of time.