Between Strategic Autonomy and Limited Power: The French Paradox


The French government often likes to put an emphasis on a concept called “strategic autonomy.” Indeed, for more than two decades now, France has sought and claimed to be an autonomous international power in the post-Cold War world.[1] The large reliance on nuclear power as the main source of energy is an illustration of this policy: France seeks to be self-sufficient and not depend on foreign resources to fuel the country. This assertion of autonomy is also seen in the military realm. Two of the main defense policy documents of the French government, the Defence and National Security Strategic Review of 2017 and the current Military Planning Law (covering the period 2019-2025), emphasize the importance of strategic autonomy.[2] However, there is a major problem: the French military instrument no longer allows the state to be completely autonomous. This article will expose the main shortcomings of the French defense policy and its military instrument of power before offering some recommendations.

Three Main Issues

Defense Budget

The end of the Cold War is the primary driver of this shift in French military focus. In 1997, the French government shifted the model of its armed forces from conscription to an exclusively volunteer, expeditionary-type.[3] Prior to this date, the French military had a larger component tasked with the defense of continental France, while a smaller, expeditionary-type component was in charge of performing missions abroad.[4] After this date, France decided to develop a more compact but better equipped force, in which all units have the capability to intervene abroad.[5] The logic was to compensate for changing quantity with quality, both in training and equipment.[6] However, in the absence of a direct threat, and even before the end of the Cold War, the government gradually reduced its defense budget: between 1982 and 2015, it was cut by almost half.[7] Recently, the French government increased the defense budget to better address new (and renewed) regional and global threats. With the implementation of the latest Military Planning Law, defense spending should reach 2% of the French gross domestic product (GDP) by 2025.[8]

A soldier walks among French armored vehicles at Mourmelon Military Camp in northeastern France (AFP)

Because of repeated budget cuts, the remaining forces did not receive more money and means to perform their tasks. This lack of resources is problematic, as budgetary cuts can translate into strategic, operational, and tactical risks. For instance, a lack of resources can impact equipment maintenance, and only about half of the French weapon systems not deployed in operations were functional as of 2015. Consequently, the quality of training experienced by the French military is necessarily reduced, which can affect their efficiency, safety, and morale.[9] Furthermore, when an operation is planned, French planners must restrict the means they want to use based on a strict budgetary logic.[10] As a result, deployed officers are left to operate with limited resources.[11] Another consequence is that French soldiers tend to rely more on close combat to destroy the enemy, in part because such tactics are cheaper than relying on firepower.[12] Tactical options are consequently rarely based on the needs on the ground; rather, they are derived from material constraints.[13]

Numbers of Troops

The French Armed Forces now have relatively few troops. For instance, the French Army went from roughly 350,000 soldiers in 1984 to 200,000 in 1998.[14] In 2017, it had about 114,500 soldiers, although there was a slight increase of 2,000 troops compared to 2016.[15] Specifically, the operational combat force of the Army is comprised of just 77,000 soldiers, and as another example, it is meant to possess only 225 heavy tanks by 2025.[16]

Such relatively low number of troops and materiel constitutes an obvious shortcoming for a state with global ambitions, territory, and interests to protect in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia-Oceania.[17] Low numbers, combined with lasting budgetary cuts, resulted in the French Armed Forces becoming a force designed to win short wars and earn tactical success.[18] France does not have the necessary personnel to be a decisive actor in a major conventional conflict, a direct contradiction to the sacrosanct French principle of strategic autonomy. In a coalition, France would likely have only limited effect and strategic influence.[19] France is over-reliant on nuclear deterrence to ensure its security and protect its interests to face conventional threats. While nuclear power is absolutely a key element of any defense policy for states which can afford it, conflicts are still far more likely to involve the deployment of regular forces than exclusively rely on nuclear weapons, if at all.

Aerial photo of Fort Madama, Niger, in November 2014 (Thomas Goisque/Wikimedia)

Recent experience should have taught France better: it has a high level of military engagement, with three major ongoing operations (Sentinelle on the French soil, Barkhane in the Sahel, and Chammal in Iraq and Syria). By 2016, such intense and sustained engagement was proved problematic, as France ended its nonpriority operation Sangaris in Central African Republic, because the pressure on the French Armed Forces was too taxing to sustain.[20] Furthermore, French military experts have regularly pointed out that France’s level of engagement constitutes a huge strain on the force. Consequently, the French lack of resources and personnel has resulted in a direct and strategic impact on their recent operational posture.

Structural Limitations of the French Military Model

Another problem, this one of a structural nature, is the French military model itself. The current model—a small, professional, expeditionary force that may have to rely at least partially on partnerships with other states—may be relevant for bridging operations in which military  forces are used to stabilize a situation until other forces, typically from an international organization such as the United Nations, are able to take over.[21] The Strategic Review itself emphasizes the importance of cooperation and partnerships.[22] This model has three main limitations. First, it is always difficult to transform tactical success into strategic effect. Second, international forces are not necessarily efficient.[23] Third, and most importantly, such a model does not support France’s concept of strategic autonomy.

Indeed, the current model is overly reliant on partnerships and political factors not necessarily in the hands of the French government. Such a concept might be adequate for police operations where the political goals are either to merely stop a non-state armed group—as was the case in Serval—or execute low-intensity operations. However, this model is unlikely to achieve a decisive victory against a conventional force. For example, France has relied on a regional African organization, the G5 Sahel, to take over in the area. However, the G5 Sahel has been unable to run operations on the ground by itself, and it took three years for an African joint force to be created.[24] Consequently, France has been stranded in the Sahel for almost five years. Operation Barkhane may still show some success, but even if it achieves complete success, it is inherently designed to last a long time and has no clear and direct exit strategy other than delegating the mission to a regional organization. Consequently, the French exit strategy relies on political and material factors France does not control.

Moreover, such a strategy may be impeded by other issues, such as the military effectiveness of the force taking over, or the material means, notably funding, that organization possesses. Such an exit strategy might, in the end, turn out to barely be a strategy at all and merely a postponement to finding a real, lasting solution to the situation.

French and Malian soldiers in 2016 (Wikimedia)

Policy Recommendations

If the French government seeks to become strategically autonomous again, it should implement a set of relatively simple but necessary measures.


First, the French government should increase the number of military personnel, most notably in its Army. Such an increase is essential to accomplish the cherished goal of strategic autonomy, relieve the current pressure on the armed forces, prepare to face conventional threats, and reinforce conventional deterrence.[25] It is all the more important since potential adversarial forces not only have an advantage in quantity, but increasingly have a qualitative advantage as well.[26] Consequently, France cannot rely on superior training and equipment, and on the flexibility and creativity of its military leaders, to compensate for lack of numbers.[27] Recent conflicts have demonstrated that numbers and firepower are still relevant.[28] Moreover, offsetting low numbers by technology has limitations.

Indeed, trading numbers for technology is an erroneous concept, which might be relevant on the tactical level, but not necessarily in the operational and strategic realms. Critical mass remains important. The enormous expansion of modern combat spaces, which can extend to the whole planet, give a particular importance to numbers. Indeed, to efficiently cover all spaces of engagement, and to do so in a timely manner, it is essential to have a sufficient number of soldiers and materiel available.[29] For a state like France, with global ambitions and a theoretical potential requirement to deploy forces simultaneously in different continents, numbers should not be a luxury. Numbers should be a requirement.


Currently, the French reserve forces cannot decisively reinforce the core of the Army. Indeed, as currently designed, they are built to reinforce permanent units with either individuals or small groups. The reserves cannot be used to form entire brigades or even battalions equipped with heavy materiel, the current stocks being insufficient to fully equip all active units.[30] Reviving the reserve and giving it back true capabilities should be one of the top priorities of the French defense leadership. These steps would relieve pressure on the armed forces, and constitute a true reinforcement mechanism to support the troops deployed either abroad or on domestic territory. France needs to act decisively regarding its reserve to effectively reinforce its defense capabilities, face strategic threats, and respond to strategic surprises.

Rethinking the French Military Model

The current French military model simply does not match the goal of strategic autonomy or the high level of engagement, both in theory and in practice, of the French Armed Forces. To ensure autonomy, maximize the defense of French territory and its neighborhood, and fulfill a high level of engagement, France could return to its traditional model. A single, larger force could be dedicated to the defense of the French territory and its immediate surroundings against conventional threats, most notably in Europe, with a second, much smaller, expeditionary force that specializes in defending French interests and territory abroad through limited operations. Such a model disappeared largely because of the end of the Cold War. Yet, a real challenge would be to reproduce such a model without re-enacting conscription, which is very likely unrealistic both from political and fiscal standpoints. In any case, with conventional threats re-emerging, the reestablishment of the traditional French military model, with adapted solutions to avoid conscription, should at the very least be considered by the political leadership and the French nation as a whole.

Alternatively, a new model could be established. For instance, France could maintain its small core of professional troops to carry out the main combat tasks and constitute the spearhead of the force in case of a conventional conflict and interventions abroad, while a larger reserve could perform secondary tasks and occupy terrain. Another potential solution could be to gradually, but frequently, add more personnel to the armed forces by pursuing aggressive recruitment campaigns. By the end of 2016, France had added 11,000 soldiers to the operational combat force of the Army.[31] The French government could seek to increase the numbers of the armed forces with similar, more frequent additions. It could also allow the French Armed Forces to gain more combat power without overly taxing the current military infrastructure, and allow the military to gradually absorb the new recruits.

Defense Budget

While France made a recent effort to stop budget cuts and increase its defense spending, it should continue to increase the defense budget in the future and ensure it reaches and maintains at the very least 2% of GDP. Moreover, if NATO considers that member states not heavily involved abroad and not possessed of nuclear weapons should spend 2% of their GDP on defense, it seems reasonable that France will need to spend more, considering its global ambitions and arsenal.[32]

Members of the 5e Regiment de Cuirassiers parade during the annual Bastille Day military parade in Paris on July 14, 2017. (Christophe Archambault/AFP)


If France truly wants to remain a global actor, a credible military power, and strategically autonomous, it needs to undertake considerable efforts to improve the current condition of its armed forces. France has made progress in this regard, but still needs to do more. Increasing the mass of the armed forces and the defense budget, and rethinking the role of the reserve and the current military model, are the elements the French government should focus on. Naturally, the French state may also have to focus on economic and industrial elements at the same time, as viable and sustainable military power necessarily comes with a strong economy and industry.

If, on the other hand, France finally comes to terms with its status as a medium international power, limited improvements may prove sufficient. However, in such a case, France would have to accept the fact that in the case of a major conventional conflict, it would likely have a limited strategic impact, that it has limited strategic autonomy, and that it is no longer a strong international power.

Lorris Beverelli is a French national who holds a Master of Arts in Security Studies with a concentration in Military Operations from Georgetown University. The views expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not represent the policy or positions of the French government, or armed forces.

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Header Image: French military advising in Syria (Al-Masdar News)


[1] Frédéric Mauro, “Strategic Autonomy under the Spotlight: The New Holy Grail of European Defence,” 2018/1, 4,

[2] French Republic, “Defence and National Security Strategic Review,” 2017, §1.2.,; “LOI n° 2018-607 du 13 juillet 2018 relative à la programmation militaire pour les années 2019 à 2025 et portant diverses dispositions intéressant la défense (1),” Legifrance, accessed June 10, 2019, Article 65, §1.2.1.,

[3] Rémy Hémez, “The French Army at a Crossroads,” Parameters 47, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 103.

[4] Michael Shurkin, “France’s War in Mali: Lessons for an Expeditionary Army,” RAND Corporation, 2014, 40,

[5] Ibid.

[6] Joseph Henrotin, “La défense française durant le prochain quinquennat : Quels défis ?,” DSI, no. 128 (March-April 2017), 31.

[7] Général Vincent Desportes, La dernière bataille de France: Lettre aux Français qui croient encore être défendus (Paris:  Editions Gallimard, 2015), 1. Les lois de déprogrammation militaire ou le mensonge français – La baisse inexorable des moyens financiers, Kobo.

[8] “LOI n° 2018-607,” Article 2.

[9] Desportes, La dernière bataille, 1. Les lois de déprogrammation militaire ou le mensonge français – Des paradoxes qui mettent en danger nos soldats.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Shurkin, “France’s War”, 42.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Desportes, La dernière bataille, 1. Les lois de déprogrammation militaire ou le mensonge français – Des paradoxes qui mettent en danger nos soldats.

[14] Ibid., 1. Les lois de déprogrammation militaire ou le mensonge français.

[15] French Ministry of the Armed Forces, “2018 Defence Key Figures”, 2018, 16,; French Ministry for the Armed Forces, “Defence Key Figures: 2017 Edition”, 2017, 16,

[16] CES Lionel Guy, CDT Alexandre Montagna, “Un nouveau modèle pour l’Armée de Terre”, TIM, no. 276 (July-August 2016), 3.

[17] French Republic, “Strategic Review,” §§166, 167, 168.

[18] Desportes, La dernière bataille, 1. Les lois de déprogrammation militaire ou le mensonge français – Des paradoxes qui mettent en danger nos soldats.

[19] Ibid., 9. A un pas du gouffre : plus de guerres, moins de moyens ? – Quelles conséquences stratégiques?

[20] Hémez, “The French Army,” 110.

[21] Ibid.

[22] French Republic, “Strategic Review,” §5.2.

[23] Hémez, “The French Army,” 110.

[24] Africa Center for Strategic Studies, “A Review of Major Regional Security Efforts in the Sahel,” March 4, 2019,

[25] Hémez, “The French Army,” 111.

[26] Henrotin, “La défense française”, 31.

[27] Rémy Hémez, Aline Leboeuf, “Retours sur Sangaris : Entre stabilisation et protection des civils,” Focus stratégique, no. 67 (April 2016), 30,

[28] Henrotin, “La défense française”, 34.

[29] Benoist Bihan, “Masse critique,” La plume et le sabre, March 31, 2013,

[30] Michel Goya, “La « descente en masse »,” DSI, no. 131 (September-October 2017), 62.

[31] Hémez, “The French Army,” 104.

[32] Général Vincent Desportes, “Un désastre militaire,” Conflits, no. 13 (April-May-June 2017), 49.