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Overview Last updated: June, 2014

France is a party to all of the major nonproliferation treaties and international export control regimes. Although it has scaled down its nuclear forces since the end of the Cold War, France still retains a significant nuclear capability. Though France developed biological and chemical weapons during World War I, and restarted these programs during the 1930s, it has ceased activities in both areas. It possesses a limited but diverse missile program.

Nuclear

France has been a nuclear weapon state party to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) since 1992. In March 2008, French President Sarkozy announced that the country would leave its submarine missile arsenal in place while scaling back its stock of air-launched weapons by a third, cutting its nuclear arsenal to around 290 warheads. [1] By January 2013, France had successfully completed this reduction. France's nuclear weapons are carried on 20 Mirage 2000N bombers, 20 Rafale F3 land-based aircraft, 10 Rafale MF3 carrier-based aircraft, and four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBN), the latest of which, (Le Terrible), entered service in 2010. [2] From the time it detonated its first nuclear bomb on 13 February 1960, until its final test on 27 January 1996, France conducted 210 tests at sites in the Sahara and on Pacific atolls. [3] In 1996, President Jacques Chirac introduced reforms to the country's nuclear forces, including scaling back the number of French SSBNs from five to four, withdrawing aging Mirage IVP bombers from service, and dismantling the Plateau d'Albion land-based ballistic missile system. [4] France also dismantled its nuclear test facilities in the Pacific and ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) and the protocols to the Treaty of Tlateloco, the Treaty of Rarotonga and the Treaty of Pelindaba. [5] France ceased production of plutonium and highly enriched uranium for weapons in 1992 and 1996, respectively, and in 1998 began to dismantle the corresponding Marcoule reprocessing plant and Pierrelatte enrichment facility. [6]

On 11 March 2009, then President Sarkozy announced that France would rejoin NATO's integrated military command structure after a 43-year absence. However, rejoining the U.S.-led military structure will not affect France's nuclear independence. [7] The country's April 2013 White Paper on defense and national security notes that France must maintain its nuclear deterrent to prevent any other state from infringing on its vital interests. [8] 

France generates approximately 75% of its energy from 58 nuclear power plants, and has extensive experience building them. The government-owned company AREVA is currently in process of building a "third generation" reactor called the European Pressurized Reactor (EPR), and government officials have toured countries from China to Libya promoting French nuclear expertise. AREVA is currently constructing EPRs in Normandy, Finland, and China, with the possibility of future sales to countries such as Brazil, India, the United Arab Emirates, and Iraq. [9] France also possesses a mature plutonium reprocessing industry. The AREVA La Hague plant has a commercial reprocessing capacity of 1,700 tons of used nuclear fuel per year, and uses the PUREX process to extract uranium and plutonium for recycling in MOX fuel. [10]

Although France exports nuclear facilities and expertise, it also helps to limit the proliferation of especially sensitive materials and technologies through its membership in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the Zangger Committee (ZAC).

Biological

France possessed a biological weapons program from 1921 to 1926 and again from 1935 to 1940. [11] During these periods, France weaponized the potato beetle and conducted research on the pathogens that cause anthrax, salmonella, cholera, and rinderpest. Its scientists also investigated botulinum toxin and ricin. [12] It acceded to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) on 27 September 1984, and is a member of the Australia Group.

Chemical

France developed and used chemical weapons in WWI and maintained stockpiles of mustard gas and phosgene at the beginning of WWII. [13] During the 1960s, France also manufactured and stockpiled significant quantities of Sarin and VX nerve agents. [14] In a 1988 speech to the United Nations, then President François Mitterrand asserted that France had no chemical weapons and would produce none in the future. [15] France ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) on 2 March 1995, and is a member of the Australia Group.

Missile

In 2008, France began replacing the 48 M-45 missiles on its four SSBNs with the new M-51 missile. The M-51 is a three-stage missile and has a range of 6,000 kilometers. A missile test conducted in July 2010 confirmed the ability of the Triomphant-class submarine to launch the new missile. [16] From 1986 to 2009, France also operated 60 Air-Sol Moyenne Porte (ASMP) supersonic cruise missiles with a 250 to 300 kilometer range. The ASMPs were deployed on Mirage 2000N bombers and carrier-based aircraft. [17] However, in October 2009 the ASMPs began to be replaced by the ASMP Amélioré (ASMP-A) cruise missile, which has an increased range of 500 kilometers and carries the new TNA warhead (with a maximum yield of 300 kilotons). The ASMP-A is deployed on two fighter-bombers: the Mirage 2000N K3 and the Rafale F3, which will completely replace the Mirage aircraft by 2018. [18] Since 2008, the number of nuclear-capable land-based aircraft has been reduced from 60 to 20. [19] France deactivated and dismantled its 18 S3D intermediate-range missiles on the Plateau d'Albion in the 1990s. [20] France is a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime and the Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC).

Sources:
[1] Wade Boese, "France Upgrades, Trims Nuclear Arsenal." Arms Control Today 38, no. 3, 1 April 2008, pp. 35-36.
[2] Hans Kristensen, "France," in Assuring Destruction Forever, ed. Ray Acheson (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 2012) 27-30; V. Barrriera and R. Scott, "DCNS unveils France's last Le Triomphant-class submarine," Jane's Missiles and Rockets 12, no. 5, May 2008, www.janes.com.
[3] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 189.
[4] Declan Butler, "France seeks to clean up nuclear image," Nature 380, no. 6569, 7 March 1996, p.8.
[5] Declan Butler, "France seeks to clean up nuclear image," Nature 380, no. 6569, 7 March 1996, p.8; "Nuclear Weapon Free Zones," United Nations, accessed 18 June 2014, www.un.org.
[6] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 192.
[7] Edward Cody, "After 43 Years, France to Rejoin NATO as Full Member," Washington Post Foreign Service, 12 March 2009, p. A08.
[8] "Livre Blanc: Défense et Sécurité Nationale," Ministère de la Défense, 29 April 2013; "The main thrust of the White Paper: Twelve key points and new orientations," Ministère de la Défense, 2013.
[9] "Business: Power struggle; Nuclear energy," The Economist, 6 December 2008, pp. 81-82; Husayn Ali Dawud, "Minister of Science and Technology stresses Iraq seeks nuclear power for peaceful purposes," Al-Hayat, 15 June 2009 [Translated from Arabic].
[10] James M. Hylko, "Features. Nuclear Power: How to solve the used nuclear fuel storage problem," Power, 1 August 2008, p. 58.
[11] Olivier Lepick, "French activities related to biological warfare, 1919-45," in Biological and Toxin Weapons: Research, Development and Use from the Middle Ages to 1945, eds. Erhard Geissler and John Ellis van Courtland Mood (New York: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 1999), p. 70.
[12] Olivier Lepick, "French activities related to biological warfare, 1919-45," in Biological and Toxin Weapons: Research, Development and Use from the Middle Ages to 1945, eds. Erhard Geissler and John Ellis van Courtland Mood (New York: Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, 1999), pp. 78, 82- 90.
[13] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 194 and "Chemical and Biological Weapons: France," Federation of Atomic Scientists, updated July 1998, http://fas.org.
[14] Jonathan B. Tucker, War of Nerves: Chemical Warfare from World War I to Al-Qaeda (New York, NY: Anchor Books, 3007), p. 169.
[15] Joseph Cirincione, Jon B. Wolfsthal, and Miriam Rajkumar, Deadly Arsenals: Nuclear, Biological, and Chemical Threats, Second ed. (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2005), p. 194.
[16] "M51 missile passes acceptance test," DCNS, 21 July 2010, en.dcnsgroup.com.
[17] "The French White Paper on Defence and National Security," French Ministry of Defence, 17 June 2008.
[18] Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, SIPRI Yearbook 2013:  Armaments, Disarmament and International Security, 44th ed, Oxford University Press, 2013.
[19] Hans Kristensen, "France," in Assuring Destruction Forever, ed. Ray Acheson (Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, 2012) 27-30; "ASMP-A" Missile Threat, 5 April 2013, missilethreat.com.
[20] Declan Butler, "France seeks to clean up nuclear image," Nature 380, no. 6569, 7 March 1996, p.8.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents.

Get the Facts on France

  • Maintains an arsenal of approximately 300 nuclear weapons
  • Manufactured significant quantities of Sarin and VX nerve agents during the 1960s, but asserted in 1988 that it no longer possessed or produced chemical weapons.
  • Currently developing a next-generation ballistic missile for its SSBNs