The French Bomb

The wave of protests against the installation of a new generation of American nuclear missiles in Western Europe — with massive demonstrations in October in Bonn, London, Rome and Brussels has not affected France where Mitterrand and his government (despite its four Communist Party ministers) are fully behind Reagan.

It is true that there was an anti-missile demonstration in Paris on 25 October but it attracted less than 50,000 people — not even a third of the number that gathered in Brussels the same day — and it was organised by a Communist Party front organisation, the so-called Mouvement de la Paix (Peace Movement). This was originally set up at the time of the bogus Stockholm appeal of 1952 when Russia was trying to use anti-war sentiments in Western Europe to gain a respite to develop its own atomic bomb, just as it is now trying to use these same sentiments to maintain its missile superiority in Europe.

This demonstration was no more genuinely anti-nuclear missiles than the one organised in East Berlin the same day. Its most radical demand was that France change its foreign policy and stop supporting Reagan on this issue. There was no question of demanding, like CND and the Labour Party in Britain, that France should give up its nuclear weapons or that it should stop its nuclear tests, nor even that it should abandon research into developing its own neutron-bomb.

This is not surprising since the French Communist Party (PCF) is an enthusiastic supporter of the French nuclear force de frappe (strike force), and has been since 11 May 1977 when it suddenly changed its line. Ordinary PCF members, as is usual when the Communist Party performs a zig or a zag like this, only learned of their Party’s new policy when they opened their Humanite the next day. The PCF leaders justified this change on the ground that the French bomb was a fact and didn’t necessarily have to be directed against Russia.

But the hypocrisy of the PCF on this issue is easily matched by that of the French Socialist Party (PS). Even though De Gaulle was able to claim the “credit” since the first French bomb exploded under his presidency, the original decision to develop the French nuclear bomb was taken in 1956 by a government headed by a member of the PS (or SFIO as it was then known) Guy Mollet. There was nothing unusual in this since the British bomb was decided by a Labour government too. Among the leading members of Mollet’s cabinet, as Minister of Justice, was a certain Francois Mitterrand who at that time had not yet started to pretend to be a “socialist” but was still a member of one of the many obscure parliamentary groups which flourished under the French Fourth Republic.

Then, when the SFIO transformed itself into the PS in 1971 with Mitterrand as leader and began its ten-year march to power, it at first adopted an anti-bomb position. Its new programme published in 1972 under the title Changer la vie declared that the PS “refuses to accept ‘the French nuclear fact’. As soon as it comes to power the Left government will have to take the decision to interrupt the construction of the force de frappe”. The Common Government Programme signed later that year between the PS. the PCF and the Left Radicals was even more explicit. Defence policy, it stated, would be based on a number of principles including the “repudiation of the strategic nuclear strike force in whatever form” and the “immediate stopping of the manufacture of the French force de frappe”. It also promised that nuclear tests would be immediately stopped and that France would adhere to the Test Ban and Non-Proliferation Treaties.

The change to a pro-bomb position by the PS preceded that of the PCF and was begun by Mitterrand himself during the 1974 presidential election campaign when he was the single candidate of the Left, supported by the PCF as well as the PS. In order to win enough votes to get elected he had to appear to be a “responsible statesman”; but how could someone seeking power to manage the affairs of French capitalism refuse to accept “the French nuclear fact”? As Mitterrand declared in a radio interview on Europe No 1: “I am a realistic man of politics and I have to assume responsibility for France. But, for fifteen years, this force de frappe has become a reality, it exists” (Le Monde, 16 May 1974).

After the election was over and lost (Giscard, the man Mitterrand beat earlier this year, was elected) the PS took steps to formalise this U-turn. The most enthusiastic advocates of this were the members of CERES, the left wing ginger group within the PS, who wanted France to have a nuclear bomb so as to be able to stand up to America as well as to Russia. Mitterrand was more realistic: he and the majority of the PS never doubted for a moment that the French bomb could only be directed against Russia. Hence Mitterrand’s current support for Reagan on the issue of installing more nuclear missiles in Western Europe other than in France, which can supply its own.

This PS support for Reagan is political as well as diplomatic. A spokesman for the PS has described the mounting antiwar sentiment in West Germany as “very dangerous” and Lionel Jospin, the Party’s General Secretary, condemned “unilateral pacifist sentiments” in a speech to the party’s recent conference in Valence. The reaction of the Labour Party’s fraternal delegate was not recorded. There was also the curious article published in The Times on 26 October by Didier Motchane in which this leading figure on the CERES wing of the PS urged the Labour Party to abandon its position in support of unilateral nuclear disarmament on the grounds that if European States did not have their own nuclear bombs then America and Russia would take even less account of them. This would have appealed to Michael Foot’s hero, Aneurin Bevan, who argued that he, as future British Foreign Secretary (which in fact he never became), would be forced to go naked into the conference chamber.

As to nuclear tests, France had already stopped carrying them out in the atmosphere in 1975 but, like the other nuclear powers, had been continuing them underground. On 29 May Mitterrand’s Minister of Defence, Charles Hernu, announced the suspension of French underground tests; so it seemed that at least one of the earlier promises was going to be kept; but on 2 June Hernu announced . . . the resumption of French nuclear tests! And the’ first Mitterrand nuclear test took place, at Mururoa in the Pacific, on 4 August. An Australian MP has alleged that French underground tests have poisoned beaches in this area through leaks (The Times, 26 September). The truth is not likely to come out on this since governments are notoriously secretive in this field (the Giscard government never even announced that a test had taken place).

But Mitterrand’s pro-bomb policy goes even further. Far from repudiating “the strategic nuclear strike force in whatever form” as promised in 1972, he has refused even to interrupt research authorised by Giscard into how to develop a French neutron bomb. On 28 July Hernu announced that this research would continue. Another of Mitterrand’s little hypocritical gestures was to insist, when he opened the Paris air show on 5 June, that the guns be removed from all the French aircraft on show. As soon as he left the guns were put back again and the business of arms selling was resumed as usual. Which, after all, was one of the main purposes of the show.

France is in fact the world’s third largest “merchant of death”, after America and Russia, and is likely to remain so under Mitterrand. Giscard, when he was President, made a speciality of trading arms for oil with Middle East States, particularly Iraq and Saudi Arabia. Mitterrand has not changed this policy which is an economic necessity for French capitalism Saudi Arabia’s Head of State visited France soon after Mitterrand’s election and Mitterrand has already reciprocated. But if Giscard was openly cynical about what he was doing Mitterrand and his Foreign Minister, former EEC Commissioner Claude Cheysson, have been shamefaced and hypocritical about it, trying to disguise their sordid but unavoidable economic practice behind high-sounding and grandiose phrases.

For instance, Cheysson has stated that “an insupportable totalitarian regime must not have French arms that can be used for repression”. Since most states in the world are totalitarian and since any weapon can in the end be used for internal repression, if strictly applied this would considerably limit the outlets for the French arms industry. But Cheysson has no intention of applying this principle strictly; in practice only two countries, South Africa and Chile, are being blacklisted, for sentimental reasons. All the rest are, apparently, regarded as non-totalitarian, including countries like Iraq where if you disagree too much with the President you are put up against a wall and shot. And Saudi Arabia isn’t exactly a parliamentary democracy either.

As a matter of fact, of course, it was never likely that there would be a change in French policy on arms sales. Under capitalism, even in times of peace, states are always in competition with each other over markets, sources of raw materials, investment outlets, trade route and other economic and strategic questions. When it comes to negotiating over these differences the existence of a powerful armed force in the background is an important factor in the relationship of forces which decides the outcome, as Bevan with his fear of having to attend such conferences naked well understood. So each state is obliged to try to obtain the most modern and most effective (destructive) arms that it can afford, irrespective of whether or not it is actually involved in a conflict at home or abroad.

The level of a state’s armament is part of its negotiating strength and general credibility. This is why there is always a vast international market for arms of all sorts which no capitalist country which has an arms-producing capacity is going to refuse to supply for “moral” reasons. This is especially so in the current period of economic crisis when every little export helps. As Cheysson put it, with reference to the French arms industry, in one of his less hypocritical moments:

    “The arms industry employs 300,000 workers; it is an essential element of our independence as far as defence is concerned, and a factor for technological progress. The export of arms is a necessity, both for our defence and for our industry. It would be mad to deny it.” (Nouvel Observateur, 4 July)

This frank declaration that arms sales are an economic necessity for French capitalism shows that those who, like Mitterrand and his PS/PCF government, assume responsibility for running capitalism in any country are obliged to do so on its terms, whether they like them or not and irrespective of any moral scruples they may or may not have.

Adam Buick (Luxemburg)

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