Development of a nuclear deterrent was one of French President Charles de Gaulle's principal policy goals when he returned to power in 1958. On 3 November 1959, at the école Militaire, de Gaulle publicly announced his intention to create a nuclear strike force. There was sharp criticism by Washington of de Gaulle's decision, chiefly because U.S. policymakers did not believe that France had the means to develop a strategically effective nuclear force. They also contended that France was already protected by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and no country was directly threatening France. De Gaulle, however, was angered by the close cooperation on nuclear weaponry between the United States and Britain and by their nuclear monopoly within the Western alliance but also because the two powers had refused to share atomic secrets with France. (In the early 1990s it was revealed that the U.S. government did assist French scientists indirectly by providing hints in nuclear weapons development that enabled them to realize substantial savings in both money and time.)
De Gaulle rejected an appeal from U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower for an integrated NATO military command as well as efforts by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles to get France to forego the development of nuclear weapons. On its part, the United States rebuffed de Gaulle's calls for a NATO tridirectorate of the United States, Britain, and France to oversee defense policies. De Gaulle believed that no such arrangement was possible without France possessing nuclear weapons.
Harking back to mistrust beginning in World War II, de Gaulle believed that France could not count on Britain and the United States. He and many other French citizens saw Britain as an unreliable ally that was not committed to Europe. De Gaulle also believed that the United States would not risk a Soviet nuclear attack on its own soil to employ nuclear weapons in the defense of Western Europe, a position strengthened by the failure of the U.S. government to consult with France during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
De Gaulle insisted that "the defense of France must be French." His intense nationalism played an important role, but de Gaulle also saw French possession of nuclear weapons as helping to establish a new geopolitical dynamic, with France the leader of a "second" Western force that would include Eastern Europe and operating in partnership with, and not as a pawn of, the United States.
On 25 July 1960, after two successful French atomic bomb tests, Premier Michel Debré presented to the National Assembly a four-year, $2.3 billion plan for a nuclear bomber force. A bill providing $1.2 billion through 1964 passed the National Assembly on a close vote. The Senate twice rejected the legislation but was prohibited by the constitution from preventing the third passage of a bill in the Assembly. The legislation became law on 6 December 1960.
The Force de Frappe was, nonetheless, one of the most fractious issues in French domestic politics during the de Gaulle presidency. There was general agreement in France in favor of such a program (even the French Communist Party went on record as favoring an independent French nuclear deterrent). The opposition occurred primarily because of its high financial cost and because it became a rallying point to attack de Gaulle personally.
Beginning in 1962 the French armed forces were reshaped into an interior defense force intended solely for the defense of France, an intervention force for emergency deployment beyond the French borders, and the Force Nucléaire Stratégique, a strategic nuclear force of fifty Mirage IV bombers. The first French nuclear bomber units became operational in 1964. On 7 March 1966, de Gaulle announced the withdrawal of French forces from NATO. Development of the Force de Frappe was sped up and included sixty Mirage IV aircraft, each capable of delivering a 60-kiloton nuclear bomb. In 1967 France launched its first nuclear submarine. In August 1968 France achieved its first thermonuclear explosions in a series of South Pacific tests. Nuclear ballistics missiles in underground silos became operational in 1971, while submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) completed the triad.
Although the end of the Cold War diminished the justification for the Force de Frappe, which became the Force de Dissuasion (deterrent force), it continues in place and is supported by virtually the entire French political spectrum.
Spencer C. Tucker
Diamond, Robert A. France under de Gaulle. New York: Facts on File, 1970.; Gaulle, Charles de. Memoirs of Hope: Renewal and Endeavor. Translated by Terence Kilmartin. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.; Hoffmann, Stanley. Decline or Renewal? France since the 1930s. New York: Viking, 1974.; Kulski, W. W. De Gaulle and the World: The Foreign Policy of the Fifth French Republic. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1966.