Exclusive interview with François Fillon

François Fillon

François Fillon, Republican candidate for the right and centre primary on 20 and 27 November 2016 (photo credit: Le Figaro)

Continuing our series of interviews about the positioning of French political representatives relative to the Army and the defence industry in the run up to the French Presidential elections in 2017, today it is the turn of François Fillon, Republican candidate for the right and centre primary and currently member of parliament for the 2nd district of Paris to outline his programme for us. This former prime minister and senator for the Sarthe has held numerous ministerial portfolios from higher education and research to information technologies and the post office via social affairs and the environment, but he has never been defence minister.

 

In a difficult budgetary context, how much effort should be put into the defence budget?

When we talk about the defence budget, we have to understand what we’re talking about. Our army is there to defend France: her independence, her sovereignty and her vital interests. We must therefore be able to fulfill these absolutely vital missions. Our country is facing an unprecedented threat which is unlikely to be short-lived: that of a merciless asymmetrical war waged by totalitarian islamism along an arch of crisis which runs from the Sahel to Afghanistan, added to the spectre of renewed conflict between major powers, and all this in a context where the future positioning of our US ally is unpredictable.

As president I want to put our armies into phase with this protean threat. To do so, and as soon as I take office, I will prepare a financial audit and a strategic review in order to prepare the next military programme law. In budgetary terms, my aim is to have an annual budget of €42.2bn in 2022 without counting pensions, that is, if we do include pensions, an effort of around 1.9% of GDP so that we can reach 2% by 2025.

 

Is it the role of the army to undertake operations such as Sentinelle (deployed within France)?

The shock of the terrorist attacks against France justified the visible presence of our soldiers as a demonstration of our determination to ensure the security of the French people and to fight terrorism. Sentinelle is also positive because the link between the Army and the Nation has been remarkably demonstrated during this difficult period. But the vocation of our armed forces is not to ensure a permanent public security mission on our national territory. In the republican tradition this mission unambiguously belongs to the interior security forces, that is the police and the gendarmerie.

It is thus appropriate to tend towards a disengagement of the army from operation Sentinelle to focus all our soldiers on their already very heavy operational missions and allow them to return to a normal training cycle and to prepare their overseas missions.

But I think that the reserve could be reinforced in order to offer those of our young compatriots who want to participate in ensuring our security, the opportunity to serve France and her security. Therefore I intend to offer this opportunity to train and serve to 10,000 men and women every year.

Nevertheless, we should also pose the question of the pertinence of the long-term French presence on each of the theatres where we are currently engaged. It was necessary for France to intervene to stop armed terrorist groups from destabilising northern Mali and the countries in the Sahelan and Saharan zones. But it is not France’s vocation to be Europe’s gendarme, the latter must be capable of defending its interests. That is why I will ask our partners, and notably Germany, to significantly increase their participation, not only in training missions as is the case today, but also in protection and combat missions. I’ll add that I want to lay the foundations of a European alliance starting by sharing the costs of foreign operations undertaken in a UN framework.

 

Do you think the army is sufficiently well equipped?

The coherence between our armed forces is a condition of the efficiency of our military tool. That is why each of our armies must be equipped as a function of the objectives fixed by our operational contract. As for the army, having a stable number of personnel will allow the operational contract to be met. But materiel is desperately short. The Scorpion programme will give us new capacities by replacing our ageing fleet of armoured vehicles. And we need it: remember that in some regiments half, even two thirds, of armoured vehicles are out of service! However, it’s not only a question of renovating decrepit equipment. It’s above all a question of ensuring it is as available as possible over time. The operations in the Sahelo-Saharan band have proven that we need to make serious improvements on this point. I’m thinking in particular of the problems linked to sand in the helicopter engines. This situation must make us think more deeply about how to improve the maintenance in operational condition of our equipment. I want this to be at the heart of the strategic review that I will put in place to prepare the next military programme law.

 

How can be grow our defence industrial base? Do you think that the examples set by MBDA and Nexter should be followed?

We are lucky in France to have an excellent defence industrial base, the fruit of a long military tradition and know-how maintained domestically thanks to an ambitious R&D policy. This fact is internationally recognised because we are in the top ranks of export nations. The major defence groups are the most visible element of this effort because they build the flagships of our military industry. They are the vision of France in their respective fields and create wealth, jobs and innovation. The mid-size and small enterprises who participate in these programmes must also be highlighted. So, our defence industrial base will grow by strongly supporting these businesses which are inventive and reactive. I will put the DGA [French procurement agency] in charge of this. Upstream research is also a key element to ensure the future of our defence. We must thus ensure the regeneration of our researchers in our national laboratories: CEA-DAM, Onera…

Finally, we should preserve our defence industrial base in a certain number of strategic areas because this industry cannot be treated just like any other sector. We have keep a close eye on the collaboration between Nexter and KMW. This collaboration is justified by the need to reach a critical mass with the Germans which we cannot attain by ourselves to go and conquer markets in the land sector. But I will not hesitate to stop this process if it endangers French interests. We will also have to keep a close eye on the upcoming sale by the Volvo Group of Renault Trucks Defense. In the naval sector, the future of the Chantiers de Saint-Nazaire, the only one big enough to handle the hull of the successor to the Charles-de-Gaulle aircraft carrier, or again the future of Areva-TA in charge of the design of the nuclear propulsion must be watched extremely carefully.

 

If you become President of the Republic in 2017 what will your three defence priorities be?

The priority of all priorities, as I’ve said, is to make sure that our military tool is coherent and efficient. This objective can be declined in many fields and it’s not satisfactory to have to summarise in three proposals. However, if I must choose certain aspects of my project which are both salient and urgent, I would highlight the following:

 

  • Secure the last two years of the military programme law which is vital for our armies but short of €2bn, and ensure that the financial audit and strategic review are undertaken so that we can prepare the next military programme law with a clear vision of our needs and objectives.
  • Stabilise the numbers of personnel in the armed forces so that they can fulfill their missions in a framework centred on the preparation of overseas missions.
  • Prepare the future by strengthening our capabilities in the field of artificial intelligence and cyberdefence. The foundations have been laid, but we must go further, notably concerning our offensive capacities, so that we can create a fifth force.

Apart from these priorities, as a guarantee of France’s independence and thus her strategic autonomy, I will launch studies for the construction of a successor to the Charles-de-Gaulle, to enter service in around 2035, and will ensure the continuity and modernisation of our nuclear deterrent without impacting on the coherence of our conventional forces.