France was among the pioneers of nuclear weapons technology. Currently, France refuses to acknowledge the number of nuclear weapons she has but the international community believes France has the third-largest nuclear weapons stockpile globally, approximately 300 of which are in deployment. This number begs the question, “why does France have such a high number of nuclear weapons?” International relations are volatile. Today’s allies may be tomorrow’s enemies and France knows this fact too well from as early as World War I. Apart from the French nuclear weapon programme, the country also has a massive peaceful nuclear programme and generates among the world’s largest quantities of nuclear power.
Force de Frappe
In the late 1950s and 1960s, France initiated Force de frappe (Strike Force). This force was to enable the country to operate independently without the help of NATO using nuclear deterrence on future superior enemies. Force de frappe used sea, air, and land-based nuclear weapons for deterrence. To date, France Nuclear Force, a section of the French Military, remains the third-largest nuclear force in the world after the US and Russia.
Testing In Algerian Sahara
France did 210 nuclear tests between 1960 and 1995 within its territory and overseas territories. Between 1960 and 1966, the country conducted seventeen tests in the then French Algeria within the Sahara Desert. Thirteen of these tests were underground. Apart from geographic location, they choose Algeria because of the Algerian War that was ongoing. The Centre Saharien d’Expérimentations Militaires ((C.S.E.M) Saharan Military Experiments Centre), Centre Interarmées d’Essais d’Engins Spéciaux ((CIEES) Joint Special Vehicle Testing Center), and Centre d’Expérimentations Militaires des Oasis (C.E.M.O) conducted the tests under different code names like Gerboise Bleue (“Blue jerboa”) and Gerboise Rouge.
Testing In French Polynesia
France also conducted 193 tests in French Polynesia in the South Pacific Ocean from 1966 to 1996. Initially, the military did not favor French Polynesia because of its distance from France and its lack of a large airport. However, after Algeria gained independence, the rest of the tests took place in French Polynesia. France conducted her last nuclear test in the South Pacific Ocean in 1996 just before signing the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) the same year. In 2008, the country announced that she had reduced the nuclear arsenal in the French Airforce by 30%, leaving Force de Frappe with only 290 nuclear warheads. Today, France has deactivated all her land-based nuclear missiles. Between 1996 and 2012, France used powerful supercomputers to simulate nuclear tests and also for study purposes. Currently, French law dictates that out of four submarines on patrol at any given time, one must carry a nuclear weapon.
Protests Against French Nuclear Tests
The Algerian Sahara tests elicited protests from Egypt, Nigeria, Ghana, and Japan. Of the seventeen, an accident happened during one test leading to radiation exposure to soldiers and a section of civilians. Moroccan and Liberian government denounced the tests. Over 26 Afro-Asian countries also condemned the tests at the United Nations General Assembly. Between 1960 and 1996, governments, lobby groups, think tanks, and Civil Society groups in New Zealand and Australia staged several protests against testing in the South Pacific. In 1972, Australia and New Zealand took France to the International Court of Justice.
About the Author
• Mark Owuor Otieno
Mark is a student at Maseno University and community commentator in Kenya. Mark also has interests in geography, African history, and international development.