All along the 1930’s, France apparently enjoyed a comfy situation. Security, which had always been at the core of her foreign policy, was virtually achieved: her nemesis was disarmed by the Treaty of Versailles, her army was considered Europe’s strongest and its allies were numerous, from the United Kingdom admirable military cohorts to the United States’ impressive industrial potential. Her sons had held their ground against the German tide on the banks of La Marne; they had triumphed at Verdun and, backed with their fierce allies, won the Great War. Sacrifices, of course, had been made: with nearly 1,400,000 killed in actions (KIA) France’s losses represented 25% of the Allies’ and were almost as numerous as Germany’s (2,000,000) and Russia’s (1,800,000) though having less inhabitants, representing, in the end, around 5% of France’s population.
But this victory wasn’t to be celebrated outside of official ceremonies: France, which had cherished the prospect of a war ever since the German Empire had annexed Alsace and Lorraine, had lost its appetite for blood and sacrifices. She could not forget the generations sacrificed at la Somme, le Chemin des Dames and along the Flanders Fields: most of the fighting of the Western Front had happened on her soil and the very landscapes were carrying the scars caused by war. Acres and acres were covered in holes polluted with unexploded ammunitions, gas and the remains of valiant warriors of all sides. Most importantly and though being victorious, France, deep down, knew too well that although having carried most of the fighting on the western front, victory could not have been achieved against Germany without the help of the United Kingdom, Italy, Belgium, Russia, Serbia and the United States. She remembered too well the battles that took place in 1914, the unstoppable advance of the Germanic troops and august the 22nd, when 27,000 French soldiers were killed – in just one bloody day. Those figures might not really mean anything to you, so let’s put them into perspective: that’s 27 times more than the casualties suffered by the US on Omaha Beach.
And yet, France was relieved. She could count on strong allies and on an army crowned with the glory obtained on the bloody battlefields of the Great War. France was actually so relieved that she stopped worrying: she missed the birth of modern motorised warfare, she failed to realise the importance of air supremacy, she neglected the need to constantly innovate from a tactical and strategic point of view, she never felt like reforming her political and military institutions. Instead, she built the Maginot Line, hoping that kilometres of fortifications could shelter her from the rise of a more populated, ambitious and warmongering Germany. To 1930’s France, another World War was a possibility: it was going to be a long and bloody one but, in the end, her soldiers’ resilience, the economic and military potential of her allies and her mastery of defensive tactics would insure France’s triumph. That’s exactly where her mistakes lied: “A lost war never permits the leaders of a defeated Army to rest and demands insistent searching for the reason of the defeat, but victory breeds self-confidence and a disposition to rest content with precisely the tactics that once proved successful.”
France was defeated in no more than six weeks.
By that time, she had lost 85,000 men and 21,000 civilians.
Her 86 divisions had been crushed by Germany’s 3,400,000 soldiers.
Out of 4,000 tanks, 1,700 had been destroyed, scuttled or abandoned.
Out of 1,500 aircrafts, 1,300 had been destroyed.
Hitler had expected a million Germans to die in conquering France; instead, his goal was accomplished in just six weeks with only 27,000 Germans killed, 18,400 missing and 111,000 wounded.
Many facts explain France’s sudden fall into oblivion: the Republic had tanks with proper armour and efficient guns, but they lacked manoeuvrability, communication tools and were used in an incoherent way; her aircrafts were outdated and her artillery, though numerous, lacked mobility; her soldiers were brave and willing to fight, but misguided and sometimes poorly equipped, for more modern weaponry were still to be produced and/or delivered to the front line; moreover, they had close to no operational experience while Germany had used 1936’s Spain and 1939’s Poland to experiment new tactics and toughen her troops; her officers were stuck in 1916 and her political leaders either busy fighting for power or trying to thwart the government’s decisions. But those serious flaws would not have spelled France’s defeat without Germany’s main asset: The Blitzkrieg.
By all mean, the Blitzkrieg was a strategic rupture,. The subtle and modern combination of airstrikes and mechanized assault invalidated years of strategic and tactical thinking and literally nullified what most of Germany’s enemies thought the war would be like: permanent fortifications manned with effective guns and trained garrisons suddenly meant nothing; French tanks, individually mostly superior to their enemy counterparts, could not keep up with the swiftness of the German assaults; the skies were dominated by the Luftwaffe, her terrifyingly accurate stukas and bf-109 only English spitfires could match. France, furthermore, had always counted on her allies, but those allies were gone. Moscow was trying to buy some time on her side of the continent, Czechoslovakia and Poland had already been swallowed by the Third Reich’s forces, Belgium had been crushed, Italy was on the side of the Axis and the United Kingdom, though mastering the seas and resisting in the air, barely represented 10% of the troops on the western front. More than ever, the remaining allies, the United Kingdom and France, were paying for their lack of strategic and diplomatic thinking: the had let allies down in the past and made an enemy of Italy and now, they could only reap what they had so carelessly sow. The rest of the story is well known: covered by French troops and protected by both the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force, the BEF managed to retreat across the Channel with thousands of French soldiers. The battle for France was over, for her armies had no sea to retreat behind, and an armistice was signed on June the 22nd, 1940. Days before the armistice, two different speeches had been delivered by two different French leaders. Put together, they illustrate how divided France was, and how the defeat was already set to become a republican trauma upon which the Republic had then no choice but to build its future.
Pétain’s speech, June 17th, 1940
|De Gaulle’s speech, June 18th, 1940|
|“I spoke last night with the enemy and asked him if he is ready to seek with us, soldier to soldier, after the honourable fight, the means to put an end to the hostilities. May all Frenchmen rally to the government over which I preside during this difficult ordeal and calm their anxieties, so that they can better listen only to the faith they have in the destiny of the fatherland.”||
“This government […] has contacted the enemy to stop the fighting. It is true, we were, we are, overwhelmed by the mechanical, ground and air forces of the enemy. […] It was the tanks, the aeroplanes, the tactics of the Germans that surprised our leaders to the point of bringing them to where they are today. But has the last word been said? Must hope disappear? Is the defeat final? No!”
The Republican Trauma
Though Germany was finally defeated in 1945, France’s victory came at a price, which wasn’t only human and financial, but moral: France obviously suffered less casualties than Russia or Germany, and one cannot simply compare the scale of the destruction that happened in France with those which happened in Russia, Germany or Poland. Yet, and amongst the western allies, France was the only country upon which two world wars had been fought. As 1918’s France discovered millions of acres of land polluted and devastated, 1945’s France had to make do with her destroyed naval infrastructures and cities. Yet, France’s real challenge wasn’t to re-establish her economic strength but to deal with the moral trauma of having both (a) betrayed allies in Eastern Europe (b) lost the war against Germany in such a quick way. Though she had actively participated to the fight on the west front via the Free French Forces and the French Forces of the Interior, France could not forget 1940’s defeat and how sudden it felt. This created a true republican trauma which can be observed within the 1958’s constitution creating the Fifth Republic, which arguably institutionalised three major principles:
- France was crushed so heavily because she had neglected the strategic and tactic planning of the wars to come
- She therefore must figure out a way to turn her territory into a sanctuary; nuclear armament is the most effective option
- The credibility of France’s nuclear firepower depends on the credibility of France itself. She must be the only master of her nuclear bombs.
All of the Fifth Republic first presidents were World War Two veterans: there was of course Charles De Gaulle, who had also fought during the Great War, had been injured, taken prisoner, led a mechanised force into battle in 1940 and led Free France until the Third Reich’s defeat. There was also Georges Pompidou, a former intelligence officer who had served during the Battle of France and stayed in Paris during the Occupation. There was Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who, being only 18 years-old, served as a Résistant under the German Occupation and then, joined the French army to carry-on with the fighting in Germany. And there was François Mitterrand, the Fifth Republic’s first socialist leader, who was injured at Verdun in 1940, taken prisoner, tried to escape twice, then served as one of Vichy’s civil servant before joining the Résistance. The fact that four French veterans of the second World War served as presidents from 1958 to 1995 should never be forgotten by political analysts, geo-strategists and historians. Those four men had experienced the trauma of defeat and the bitter taste of 1945’s victory, they had seen France occupied, its cities devastated, its population divided, its armies dishonoured. Charles de Gaulle had furthermore seen how hard it was for Free French to be considered by their allies; he had witnessed the Allies’ constant tries at exchanging not just with him, the leader of Free France, but with notable collaborators such as Darlan, or ambiguous figures such as Giraud, while trying to damage his authority as a way to further control France and its assets. France had to face what we could call “the dual-issue of trust”: the trust France had to regain from its partners, and the self-confidence that she had to rebuild.
So where did it all went wrong? Trust, as we already said, was at the very chore of post-World War Two France, for the Republic was quite aware of how she had both (a) let down her eastern allies, and especially Czechoslovakia and Poland (b) been let down by other allies who had failed to provide the help she had needed at a critical time. France, after 1945, had doubts about at least two major partners: The United States, accused of defending its own interests without taking into account his allies’, and the United Kingdom, accused of blindly following the later since the failed Suez Intervention of 1956. The way France feels can easily be explained: if London and Paris were unwilling to sacrifice their armies for Czechoslovakia and Poland in 1938 and 1939, if London was unwilling to sacrifice its armies for France in 1940, if the US waited until 1942 and the attack of Pearl Harbour to join the Allies, why should France trust any allies to defend her should another world conflict happen? In the nuclear realm especially, France decided to trust no-one but herself. “NATO members must have confidence that their allies will honor their pledges to defend any one of them that may be attacked. […] Yet France openly expresses doubt that the United States can be relied upon to invoke its retaliatory power in response to a Soviet attack that is confined to Europe-no matter how aggressive and destructive it may be. […] Hence, a bold enemy will not be deterred from attacks upon our allies,” recognised Foreign Affairs’ Malcolm W. Hoag in 1963. Yet, and as opposed to the general view on the matter, France displayed nothing but “steadfast loyalty” in time of crisis: France wanted to be strategically autonomous, not to be an autarky.
France and the Cold War: the Tale of Gerboise Bleue
Ultimately, France astonishing defeat in 1940 is at the chore of today France nuclear strategy, which can be reduced to this simple idea: we won’t be invaded again, we won’t be occupied; we might be defeated in battle, but our nuclear weapons will make it impossible for anyone to break through our boarders. That explains why France nuclear strategy has never been to use her nuclear weapons aggressively, nor to develop “tactical” nuclear weapons, nor to deploy any “nuclear umbrellas”: the French nuclear power shall be used if and only if its territory is under attack. Therefore, the Republic has to make this threat important by insuring (a) its omnipresence (b) its credibility.
Its omnipresence depends on its vectors: the French bomb is terrifying because it can, virtually, strikes any area of the world, from Russia’s biggest cities to China’s metropoles, thanks to two complementary vectors: Ballistic missile submarine (‘SNLE’ in French’) and aerial vector – nuclear bombs carried by Rafale fighters – and this, to ensure that whoever attacks France and her territory will suffer consequences, no matter its position or strength. Credibility, as some of our readers may know, has been achieved through keeping France’s chain of decision short and efficient. Let’s be concrete: if Emmanuel Macron was to order a nuclear strike tomorrow, he’d only have to get in touch with the commander of one of France’s SNLE: the nuclear missiles would be launched immediately, without any parliamentary intervention or asking for an ally’s permission.
France’s nuclear military program has had its ups and downs: the way it was developed required massive investments which post-war France could hardly provide without neglecting other sectors of her activities, but still deemed strategically relevant; tests were carried out in the then-French Algerian desert, as well as in French Polynesia, not only infuriating ecological organisations but locals, who suffered from the tests’ consequences on the environment and on their health, tests which ultimately led to one of France’s biggest blunders as far as foreign affairs are concerned, the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior, in 1985. Last but not least, it frequently alienated France’s allies, who were reluctant to widen the “Nuclear Powers’ Club” and sometimes saw France’s nuclear program as yet another disturbance in the East-West relations, particularly during the Euromissiles Crisis. Yet, France’s nuclear might is one of the rare examples of a well-conceived and built strategic orientation: it has perfectly succeeded in insuring the country’s security, has allowed France to acquire technical and industrial strategic assets, has offered new perspectives to France’s allies in Europe and now represents the European Union’s only sovereign nuclear program after the United Kingdom withdrawal from it. As we’ve seen previously in the article, the French Bomb originated from purely national expectations and is not, at the moment, in any form of competition with the US to provide the European Continent with another nuclear umbrella: that might be the next step in France’s long march towards nuclear progress.
Conclusion – Strategic Independence: a French obsession
Often taken or considered as a form of arrogance, the Fifth Republic’s obsession with strategic independence is not, by all mean, a sign of hatred of disdain for its partners, friends and allies, but rather the visible part of old wounds received during the world wars, when France showed both nobility and weakness, strength and cowardice, honour and contempt. No one can relevantly adress France’s current strategic orientations without understanding that her present and future actions are still very much dictated by her past. A past that isn’t deemed of more value than another country’s one, but that is still undeniably filled with hauts faits, moving tribulations and ground shaking incidents, which can only impact the chore of the French people’s psyche. For behind France’s nuclear obsession, there are the portraits of the legions of poilus who died fighting at Verdun and saved the day and – and that may actually be even worse – the memories of those who, defeated on the banks of the Marne or alongside the Channel, not only had to endure the death of their comrades and the violence of the occupation, but the shame of the defeat as well. ‘Never again!’ dared to stumble the valiant gladiators of the Great War; ‘Never again!’ then added France’s deep popular consciousness. ‘No more invasion! No more shame!’. And there was light… there was the Bomb.
Article proposé par Hugo Decis, étudiant en Relations Internationales (IRIS Sup’)
 B. Tertrais, Géopolitique des Ruptures Stratégiques Contemporaines, Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique, 2015
 Michel Winock, 1940 : la Défaite dont la France ne s’est Jamais Remise, Sud Ouest, 10.05.2015
 Dominique Moïsi, French Foreign Policy: The Challenge of Adaptation, Foreign Affairs, 1988
 Nicolas Maldera, Quelles évolutions pour la dissuasion nucléaire française ?, IFPRI, 06.07.2016
 Kim Willsher, French spy who sank Greenpeace ship apologises for lethal bombing, The Guardian, 06.09.2015