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Right after I graduated, I interned with the Arms Control Association. It was terrific.

– George Stephanopolous
Host of ABC's This Week
January 1, 2005
Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: France
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Updated: July 2019

As a nuclear-weapons state under the NPT, France maintains the world’s third largest nuclear arsenal, estimated to include 300 nuclear warheads. Since it eliminated its land-based ICBMs beginning in 1996, 80 percent of these warheads are designed for delivery through SLBMs, with the remainder affixed to ALCMs carried by strategic bombers. France has taken significant steps toward disarmament—including halving its warhead total since its Cold War peak, no longer deploying nuclear weapons on its aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, and extending the time it takes to launch nuclear weapons to several days—and it adheres to a principle of “strict sufficiency” whereby it keeps its nuclear arsenal at the lowest possible level in accordance with the strategic context.

Contents

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

  • The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview
  • Delivery Systems
  • Ballistic Missile Defense Systems
  • Fissile Material
  • Proliferation Record
  • Nuclear Doctrine

Biological Weapons

Chemical Weapons

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

  • Conference on Disarmament (CD)
  • Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
  • Nuclear Security Summits
  • Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

 

Signed

Ratified

Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

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1992

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

1996

1998

Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)

1980

1991

CPPNM 2005 Amendment

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2013

Chemical Weapons Convention

1993

1995

Biological Weapons Convention

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1984

International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism

2005

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Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Group

Status

Australia Group

Member

Missile Technology Control Regime

Member

Nuclear Suppliers Group

Member

Wassenaar Arrangement

Member

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol

Signatory, entered into force in April 2004

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism

Participant

Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation

Participant

Proliferation Security Initiative

Participant

UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673

France has filed reports on its activities to fulfill the resolutions and volunteered to provide assistance to other states

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Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview

France maintains the third largest nuclear weapons force in the world. As of January 2019, France possesses approximately 300 nuclear warheads, most of which are designed for delivery by submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with the remainder affixed to air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) carried by strategic bombers.
 
Former French President François Hollande publicly affirmed the size of the arsenal in February of 2015 when he said that France’s stockpile included 300 warheads for 48 SLBMs and 54 cruise missiles. Estimates place France’s deployed strategic warhead numbers at around 290, with a remaining 10 in reserve. Although France has reduced the size of its nuclear arsenal by half since the Cold War, the current stockpile has remained relatively stable over the last few decades. In 2008, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated that France’s arsenal would be reduced below 300 warheads but also reaffirmed France’s commitment to its nuclear deterrent, declaring it as a “life-insurance policy.” This goal was reaffirmed by former President Francois Hollande in 2015 and current President Emmanuel Macron in 2017.
 
Although France’s aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, does not have nuclear-capable ASMPA missiles permanently onboard, there are reserve missiles that can be “rapidly deployed” on the carrier in the case of nuclear operations. France continues to modernize its nuclear arsenal and develop new missiles. According to the French Ministry of Defense (MoD), the nuclear deterrence budget in 2016 was 3.6 billion euros. In 2018, the French government announced it would allocate 25 Billion Euros to its nuclear forces between 2019 and 2023.
 

Delivery Systems

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM)

  • In 1996, France decided to eliminate its nuclear-armed land-based ballistic missiles.


Submarines and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)

Submarines:

  • As of January 2019, France’s nuclear submarine force consists of 4 Triomphant- class nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs): Le Triomphant, Le Téméraire, Le Vigilant, and Le Terrible, which are under the command of FOST (La Force Océanique Stratégique or Strategic Ocrean Force).
  • This fleet forms the backbone of the France’s nuclear deterrent and carries approximately 80 percent of the nuclear arsenal. It is based at the Île Longue peninsula, south of Brest in the Brittany region of France.
  • At least one submarine remains on deterrence patrol, one is preparing for patrol, and one is returning to port. The fourth submarine, as per the Triomphant-class’ extensive maintenance cycle, will be undergoing overhaul at any given time. 
  • A third generation submarine class, the SNLE-3G, is expected to enter development between the 2019-2025 planning period and replace the Triomphant-class, which will reach the end of their service life by 2035.

Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs)

  • France fields the following submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs):
    • M51.1 – The French reportedly have 32 M51.1 missiles carrying, carrying a total of 160 TN75 warheads. Each missile can carry up to six 100 kt multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), with a range of 6,000+ km.
    • M51.2 – The French reportedly have 16 M51.2 missiles, carrying a total of 80 TNO warheads. The TNO (tête nucléaire océanique) warheads are a reportedly stealthier warhead than the TN75. The M51.2 was flight tested in July 2016 and then declared operational in December 2017. Each missile can carry up to six new 150 kt TN MIRVs, with a range of 6,000+ km. All boats are to be upgraded to teh 51.2 by 2020.
    • M51.3 – In a joint venture, Airbus and Safran are developing the M51.3, which is scheduled for completion by 2025.
  • In 2006, former President Jacques Chirac stated that "The number of nuclear warheads has been reduced in certain of the missiles in our submarines," implying that French SLBMs do not carry the maximum number of nuclear warheads. This decision was supposedly made to improve targeting flexibility against regional powers, as well as the range and precision of the missile.

Strategic Bombers

  • As of January 2019, the French Air Force operates 40 Rafale aircraft which are capable of carrying and delivering nuclear payloads.
  • France’s Naval Force also operates a nuclear-capable squadron of Rafale MF3 aircraft that are stationed onboard the Charles de Gaulle, France’s only aircraft carrier and the only surface ship equipped for carrying nuclear weapons in NATO.
  • Rafale aircraft carry a 300 kt warhead on an Air-Sol Moyenne Portée -Amelioreor Plus (ASMPA) ALCM. The ASMPA has a range of around 500 km.
  • In April 2019, France and Germany jointly announced a joint effort to develop a sixth-generation combat aircraft with potential nuclear capabilities.

Ballistic Missile Defense Systems

France is part of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), a collective missile defense system operated by NATO allies. To learn more, see: "The European Phased Adaptive Approach at a Glance."

Fissile Material

Highly Enriched Uranium (HEU)

  • After ending its production of HEU in June 1996, President Jacques Chirac announced in February 1996 that France no longer produced fissile material for weapons purposes and that would it would dismantle its fissile material production facilities.
  • As of February 2018, France is believed to possess an HEU stockpile of around 31± 6 metric tons.
  • As of February 2018, it is estimated that France holds approximately 26 ± 6 metric tons of military HEU. There exists significant uncertainty over this figure due to a lack of public information about French HEU production.
  • In December 2014, France declared a 4.8 metric ton stockpile of civilian HEU to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). A large percentage of this civilian stock is believed to be of U.S. and Russian origin for use in research-reactor fuel. This amount is believed to be stable.

Plutonium

  • France ceased its production of separated plutonium in 1992.
  • As of February 2018, France is estimated to possess a military plutonium stockpile of 6±1 metric tons.
  • As of October 2017, France reported holding 81.7 tons of domestic unirradiated plutonium, the second largest stockpile globally, and 16.3 metric tons of reprocessed foreign unirradiated plutonium, of which 16.2 meric tons belongs to Japan.
  • France is one of the few countries that continues to reprocess spent nuclear fuel, and it accepts fuel from foreign countries for that purpose. Its AREVA La Hague plant has a commercial reprocessing capacity of about 1,700 tons of used nuclear fuel per annum (around half of the world’s light water reactor fuel reprocessing capacity as of 2009), as of 2018.  France uses separated plutonium to fabricate mixed oxide (MOX) fuel that is used in light water reactors.

 Proliferation Record

  • France officially maintains a long-standing position in support of nonproliferation activities.
  • In 1957, France signed a major nuclear cooperation agreement with Israel even though it was generally understood that Israel was interested in potentially developing a nuclear arsenal. France halted the agreement in 1960.
  • France built the Osirak reactor in Iraq despite warnings from other governments that the reactor might be used to support a secret Iraqi nuclear weapons program. Paris declined to rebuild the reactor after Israel bombed the plant in 1981.
  • France remains among the world’s top suppliers of peaceful nuclear facilities and expertise.

Nuclear Doctrine

French nuclear policy is one of calculated ambiguity regarding first-use of nuclear weapons.  France adheres to its principle of “strict sufficiency” whereby it keeps its nuclear arsenal at the lowest possible level in accordance with the strategic context. In its 2013 White Paper on Defence and National Security, France claims that its deterrence strategy is strictly defensive and that “The use of nuclear weapons would only be conceivable in extreme circumstances of legitimate self-defense” and that nuclear deterrence “protects France from any State-led aggression against its vital interests, of whatever origin and in whatever form” including terrorism. French Presidents Hollande and Macron both reiterated this nuclear doctrine. In May 2015, France reaffirmed the 1995 negative security assurance to the UN (Resolution 984) not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear-weapon states-parties to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) unless it is facing an invasion or sustained attack against its territories, armed forces, or states with which it has security agreement and the attack is in alliance with a nuclear-weapon state.

Paris declared that it took steps in 1992 and 1996 to extend the time it takes to launch nuclear weapons. It is believed that France needs several days in order to launch nuclear weapons.

Testing:

France conducted 210 nuclear tests. The first test occurred Feb.13, 1960, and the last test took place Jan. 27, 1996. France was the fourth country to conduct a nuclear weapon test.

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Biological Weapons

  • Little is known about past French biological weapons activities, which reportedly included research on anthrax, botulinum toxin, cholera, ricin, rinderpest, and salmonella over two periods: 1921 to 1926, and 1935 to 1940.
  • France is not suspected of having a current offensive biological weapons program, and under France’s 1972 Law on the Prohibition of Biological Weapons, it is illegal to produce or stockpile these weapons. They are believed to have stopped their program after WWII.
  • France continues to uphold its 2004 Code of Defense states that “The development, production, possession, stockpiling, acquisition, and transfer of microbiological agents, other biological agents and biological toxins, whatever their origin and mode of production, which are of a kind and quantity not suited for prophylactic, protection or other pacific purposes, are prohibited.”
  • France acceded to the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) on Sep. 27, 1984, and is also member of the Australia Group.
  • France annually submits reports as confidence-building measures under the BWC and encourages other states to follow suit. It also hosts the annual plenary meeting of the Australia Group.
  • France maintains a biodefense program that it claims is in strict compliance with the BWC.

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Chemical Weapons

  • During World War I, France produced and used mustard gas and phosgene. France maintained stockpiles of these weapons at the beginning of World War II but did not use them.
  • After World War II, France resumed offensive chemical weapons research and testing, and in the 1960s they manufactured Sarin and VX nerve agents.
  • France destroyed its stockpiles of chemical weapons prior to 1988. President François Mitterrand claimed, in a 1988 speech to the United Nations, that France no longer had any chemical weapons and ended production.
  • France signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in Paris in 1993 and ratified it in 1995. It also holds that it displays “exemplary” cooperation with the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).

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Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

Conference on Disarmament (CD)      
The CD was formed in 1979 as a multilateral disarmament negotiation forum for the international community. France has regularly participated in its meetings. On April 9th, 2015, France formally deposited a draft fissile material cutoff treaty at the CD. 

Nuclear Weapons Free Zones
France has signed and ratified additional protocols pledging not to use or threaten to use nuclear weapons against any of the contracting parties to the African, Central Asian, Latin American and Caribbean, and South Pacific nuclear weapons free zone treaties. However, France maintains reservations to each of these protocols. No states have signed or ratified the Southeast Asian nuclear weapons free zone treaty protocol.

Nuclear Security Summits
In keeping with its official stance in support of securing nuclear material around the world, France has  participated in the 2010 Nuclear Security Summit (NSS) held in Washington, DC, the 2012 NSS held in Seoul, the 2014 NSS Held in The Hague, and the 2016 NSS held again in Washington, DC.

Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Since its initiation of nuclear talks with Iran in 2003, France has engaged in several rounds of multilateral diplomacy with Tehran over its nuclear program, including P5+1 talks with Iran that resulted in the 2015 JCPOA. After its conclusion, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said that the deal would be sufficiently “robust” for another 10 years.
 
Following American withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, President Macron said “I regret the decision of the American president. I think it’s an error.” In January 2019, France and Germany and the United Kingdom established the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX) to facilitate trade with Iran. INSTEX was designed to create a financial channel to Iran immune from U.S. sanctions reimposed when the Trump administration withdrew from the deal.

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