De Gaulle and nuclear weapons

In October 1945, i.e. only two months after Hiroshima, General de Gaulle, as President of the Provisional Government, set up the Atomic Energy Commission (CEA) to undertake "scientific and technical research with a view to the use of atomic energy in the fields of science, industry and (let it be stressed) national defence". It took until late 1954, however, for a secret military programme to be launched with the support of a handful of enlightened politicians of the Fourth Republic and at the instigation of the Director General of the CEA,  Pierre Guillaumat. In April 1958 the programme was far enough advanced for Félix Gaillard, then President of the Council, to sign a top-secret order to make all necessary preparations "for the first series of atomic explosions to take place in the first quarter of 1960".

On his return to power two months later, one of General de Gaulle's first actions was to put his full backing behind the undertaking, with all the fierce determination for which he was well known. A series of rapid decisions were immediately taken first, Guillaumat was appointed Minister for the Armed Forces, and the creation of the "Force de Frappe", or strike force, was made an absolute priority. On the practical front, a number of plans were launched for: the building of a plant to produce highly-enriched uranium (until then, the only fissile material available to France had been plutonium), the mass production of a fleet of Mirage IV strategic bombers, the construction of a land-based prototype of a nuclear submarine power plant, and the development of strategic ballistic surface-to-surface missiles.

In February 1960, these efforts culminated in the successful explosion of the first French nuclear device at Reggane (in the Sahara), which was followed by a number of other atmospheric test explosions: the General had rejected the moratorium on atmospheric testing proposed by the USA and Britain. From September 1961, however, French nuclear tests continued underground at In-Ecker (in the Hoggar) and then, from June 1966, with devices mounted on barges or suspended from balloons at the Pacific Testing Centre in Polynesia, since France had refused in 1963 to sign the Moscow atmospheric test ban treaty.

At the same time, General de Gaulle followed with close interest the constitution of the "French Dissuasion Force". In July 1960 Pierre Messmer, the new Minister for the Armed Forces, had presented to parliament a "planning act" for the period up to 1964 to finance the construction of Mirage IV bombers and a nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarine (SSBN), as well as research into a thermonuclear bomb.

  • The first Mirage IV squadron became operational in October 1964, as part of the new "Strategic Air Force Command", which had recently been equipped with Boeing C 135 F tanker aircraft that the US government had agreed to sell to France.
  • For the sake of the nuclear submarines, in the interests of saving "time and money", General de Gaulle had agreed to the supply of enriched uranium by the USA for the land-based prototype of the nuclear power plant – under an agreement negotiated at the end of the Fourth Republic.
  • At last France was able to test a thermonuclear device, with success, but not until August 1968, despite de Gaulle's impatience with the delays caused by the uranium isotope separation plant at Pierrelatte.

A second military budget act covering the period 1966-1970 financed the construction of two other nuclear submarines, as well as the implantation of strategic ballistic surface-to-surface missiles buried in silos on the plateau d’Albion, in Provence. Both forces became operational in 1971.

In addition to these major programmes, General de Gaulle decided in 1963 that France should match America in having its own tactical nuclear weapons: atomic bombs carried by Mirage III and Jaguar aircraft, and Pluton tactical nuclear missile launchers close to the firing-line, which were brought into service after 1970.

The General had thus given priority to a "strategy of resources", devoting in excess of 50% of the total defence budget to these programmes in 1967, although this proportion decreased steadily during the following years. His objective was essentially political: to restore France's "greatness" by making her directly and fully responsible for her own defence against any major aggression threatening her vital interests. The same considerations prompted him to refuse all proposals to co-operate with the allies in this area: he refused to have medium-range missiles installed on French soil; he refused the creation of a NATO multilateral nuclear force (MLF) and breached in 1958 of a secret protocol negotiated under the Fourth Republic to begin nuclear co-operation with the Germans and Italians. 

The General's over-riding focus on political ends did not mean, however, that he took no interest in the strategy of dissuasion as it applied to France: dissuasion of the strong by the weak. What really counted for him was the determination of the "deciding party". He knew what that determination was in the case of General de Gaulle! He vested sole power to decide the use of France's nuclear arsenal in the office of the President of the Republic.