France and weapons of mass destruction explained

Country Name:France
First Test:February 13, 1960
First Fusion:August 24, 1968
Last Test:December 28, 1995
Largest Yield:2.6 Mt (August 24, 1968)
Total Tests:210
Current Stockpile:350
Maximum Range:>8000 km (M51 SLBM)
Npt Signatory:Yes (1968, one of five recognized powers)

France is one of the five "Nuclear Weapons States" under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty but is not known to possess or develop any chemical or biological weapons.[1] [2] France was the fourth country to test an independently developed nuclear weapon in 1960, under the government of Charles de Gaulle. The French military is currently thought to retain a weapons stockpile of around 350 operational nuclear warheads, making it the third-largest in the world.[3] The weapons are part of the national Force de frappe, developed in the late 1950s and 1960s to give France the ability to distance itself from NATO while having a means of nuclear deterrence under sovereign control.

France has never ratified the Partial Test Ban Treaty, giving it the capability to conduct nuclear tests. However, it has signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. On 28 January 1996 then-President Jacques Chirac said the French military would not conduct any more nuclear tests. France denies currently having chemical weapons, ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1995, and acceded to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1984. France had also ratified the Geneva Protocol in 1926.


France was one of the nuclear pioneers going back to the work of Marie Curie, and Curie's last assistant Bertrand Goldschmidt became the father of the French Bomb. This was discontinued after the war because of the instability of the Fourth Republic and the lack of finance available. During the Second World War Goldschmidt invented the standard method for extracting plutonium while working as part of the British/Canadian team participating in the Manhattan Project. But after the Liberation in 1945 France had to start again almost from scratch. Nevertheless the first French reactor went critical in 1948 and small amounts of plutonium were extracted in 1949. There was no formal commitment to a nuclear weapons program although plans were made to build reactors for the large scale production of plutonium.[4]

However, in the 1950s a civil nuclear research program was started, a byproduct of which would be plutonium. In 1956 a secret Committee for the Military Applications of Atomic Energy was formed and a development program for delivery vehicles started. The intervention of the United States in the Suez Crisis that year is credited with convincing France that it needed to accelerate its own nuclear weapons program to remain a global power.[5] In 1957, soon after Suez and the resulting diplomatic tension with both the USSR and the United States, French president René Coty decided the creation of the C.S.E.M. in the then French Sahara, a new nuclear tests facility replacing the C.I.E.E.S. With the return of Charles de Gaulle to the presidency of France in the midst of the May 1958 crisis, the final decisions to build a bomb were taken, and a successful test took place in 1960. Since then France has developed and maintained its own nuclear deterrent.

France was eager to cooperate with other countries on nuclear weapons. In May 1954 the French were far from victory in the war in Indochina against Ho Chi Minh. At the height of the decisive battle at Dien Bien Phu France's nuclear bosses sent a request to the chairman of the British Atomic Energy Authority. It was a shopping list of items that would help them build nuclear weapons including a sample quantity of plutonium "so we can take the steps preparatory to the utilisation of our own plutonium".[6] Before the letter even arrived the French had lost the battle and negotiations had been opened but later that year the French prime minister, Pierre Mendès-France, made the formal decision to build the atom bomb. Britain agreed to supply the requested nuclear materials, including enriched uranium. Among the most important parts of the agreement was an arrangement for the British to check the blueprints and construction of French plutonium production reactors.

There remained France's request for plutonium. In 1955 Britain agreed to export ten grams but "...we would not tell the US that we were going to give the French plutonium nor about any similar cases...".[6]

In 1956 the French agreed to secretly build the Dimona nuclear reactor in Israel and soon after agreed to construct a reprocessing plant for the extraction of plutonium at the site. The following year Euratom was created and under cover of the peaceful use of nuclear power the French signed deals with Germany and Italy to work together on nuclear weapons development.[7] The West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer told his cabinet that he "wanted to achieve, through EURATOM, as quickly as possible, the chance of producing our own nuclear weapons".[8] The idea was short-lived. In 1958 de Gaulle became President and Germany and Italy were excluded.


There were 210 French nuclear tests from 1960 until 1996. 17 of them were done in the Algerian Sahara between 1960 and 1966, starting in the middle of the Algerian War (1954-1962). 193 were carried out in French Polynesia.

Saharan experiments centers (1960-1966)

See also: Gerboise Bleue and Agathe (atomic test). A series of atmospheric tests was conducted by the Centre Saharien d'Expérimentations Militaires ("Saharan Military Experiments Center") from February 1960 until April 1961.

The first French atmospheric nuclear test, called "Gerboise bleue" ("blue jerboa") took place on 13 February 1960 in the French Sahara, during the Algerian War (1954-62). The explosion took place at 40 km from the military base of Reggane, which is the last town on the Tanezrouft Track heading south across the Sahara to Mali, and 700 km south of Béchar[9] . The device had a 70 kiloton yield. Although Algeria became independent in 1962 France continued nuclear tests there until 1966 although the later tests were underground rather than atmospheric. The General Pierre Marie Gallois was named le père de la bombe A ("Father of the A-bomb").

Three others atmospheric tests were carried out from 1 April 1960 to 25 April 1961. These four atmospheric tests were carried out at with a forward base at Hammoudia near Reggane. Military, workers and the nomadic Touareg population of the region assisted to these explosions, without any protection. At most, a shower after each test according to L'Humanité[10] . Gerboise Rouge (5kt), the third atomic bomb, half as powerful as Hiroshima, exploded on 27 December 1960, provoking protests from Japan, USSR, Egypt, Morocco, Nigeria and Ghana.[11]

After the independence of Algeria on 5 July 1962, following the 19 March Evian agreements, the French military moved to In Ecker, also in the Algerian Sahara. The Evian agreements included a secret article which stated that "Algeria concede... to France the use of certain air bases, terrains, sites and military installations which are necessary to it [France]" during five years.

The C.S.E.M. was therefore replaced by the Centre d'Expérimentations Militaires des Oasis ("Military Experiments Center of the Oasis") underground tests facility. Experimentations lasted from November 1961 until February 1966. The 13 underground tests were carried out at In Ekker, 150 km north of Tamanrasset, from 7 November 1961 to 16 February 1966. By July 1, 1967, all French facilities were evacuated.

An accident happened on May 1, 1962, during the "Béryl" test, four times more powerful than Hiroshima and designed as an underground shaft test.[12] . Due to improper sealing of the shaft, radioactive rock and dust were released into the atmosphere. Nine soldiers of the 621st Groupe d'Armes Spéciales unit were heavily contaminated by radiation.[13] The soldiers were exposed to as much as 600 mSv. The Minister of Armed Forces, Pierre Messmer, and the Minister of Research, Gaston Palewski, were present. As many as 100 additional personnel, including officials, soldiers and Algerian workers were exposed to lower levels of radiation, estimated at about 50 mSv, when the radioactive cloud produced by the blast passed over the command post, due to an unexpected change in wind direction. They escaped as they could, often without wearing any protection. Palewski died in 1984 of leukemia, which he always has attributed to the Beryl incident. In 2006, Bruno Barillot, specialist of nuclear tests, measured on the site 93 microsieverts by hour of gamma ray, equivalent to 1% of the official admissible yearly dose[10] . The incident was documented in the 2006 docudrama "Vive La Bombe!"[14]

Saharan facilities

used for launching rockets from 1947 to 1967.

used for atmospheric tests from 1960 to 1961.

used for underground tests from 1961 to 1967.

Pacific experiments center (1966-1996)

A total of 193 nuclear tests were carried out in Polynesia from 1966 to 1996.

Atmospheric tests at Mururoa & Fangataufa

See also: Canopus (nuclear test). The French began development of the hydrogen bomb and built a new test range on the French Polynesian islands of Mururoa and Fangataufa. On 24 August 1968 France succeeded in detonating a thermonuclear weapon - codenamed Canopus - over Fangataufa. A fission device ignited a lithium 6 deuteride secondary inside a jacket of highly enriched uranium to create a 2.6 megaton blast which left the whole atoll uninhabitable because of radioactive contamination.

Simulation programme (1996-2010)

Current nuclear doctrine and strategy

In 2006, French President Jacques Chirac, noted that France would be willing to use nuclear weapons against a state attacking France via terrorist means. He noted that the French nuclear forces had been configured for this option.[15]

On 21 March 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France will reduce its plane-based nuclear arsenal (which currently consists of 60 TN-81 warheads) by a third (i.e. 20 warheads), thus bringing the total French nuclear arsenal to less than 300 warheads.[16] [17]

Anti nuclear tests protests

Veterans' associations and symposium

An association gathering veterans of nuclear tests (AVEN, Association des vétérans des essais nucléaires) was created in July 2002. Along with the Polynesian NGO Moruroa e tatou, the AVEN announced on 27 November 2002 that it would depose a complaint against X (unknown) for involuntary homicide and putting someone's life in danger. On 7 June 2003, for the first time, the military court of Tours granted an invalidity pension to a veteran of the Sahara tests. According to a poll made by the AVEN with its members, only 12% have declared being in good health.[10] . An international symposium on the consequences of test carried out in Algeria took place on 13 and 14 February 2007, under the official oversight of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.

150,000 civilians without taking into account the local population are estimated to have been on the location of nuclear tests, in Algeria or in French Polynesia[10] .

Non-nuclear WMD

France denies currently having chemical weapons, ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) in 1995, and acceded to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BWC) in 1984. France had also ratified the Geneva Protocol in 1926.

See also

External links

Notes and References

  1. Web site: CNS - Chemical and Biological Weapons Possession and Programs Past and Present. Federation of American Scientists. 2008-03-21.
  2. Web site: France and the Chemical Weapons Convention. French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. 2008-03-21.
  3. Table of French Nuclear Forces
  4. Origin of the Force de Frappe (Nuclear Weapon Archive)
  5. Stuck in the Canal, Fromkin, David - Editorial in the The New York Times, 28 October, 2006
  6. Britain's dirty secret (article detailing Britain's assistance to foreign nuclear programs, the New Statesman, 13 March 2006)
  7. Die Erinnerungen, Franz Josef Strauss - Berlin 1989, p. 314
  8. Germany, the NPT, and the European Option (WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor)
  9. French Senate report #179: The first French tests in the Sahara
  10. La bombe atomique en héritage
  11. 1960: France explodes third atomic bomb
  12. France's Nuclear Weapons
  13. Dossier de présentation des essais nucléaires et leur suivi au Sahara
  15. France 'would use nuclear arms' - BBC news, Thursday 19 January 2006
  16.,,3784844,00-mise-eau-terrible-devant-sarkozy-.html Nucléaire : Mise à l'eau du terrible devant Sarkozy - France - LCI
  17. France cuts its nuclear weapons by a third - Telegraph
  18. Book: Frame, Tom. Tom Frame (bishop)

    . Tom Frame (bishop). No Pleasure Cruise: the story of the Royal Australian Navy. 2004. Allen & Unwin. Crows Nest. 1-74114-233-4. 251.

  19. Les essais nucleaires - report of the French Senate (in French)
  20. Radio Australia - Pacific Beat - FRENCH POLYNESIA: Nuclear veterans welcome report's findings
  21.,11882,1676238,00.html French accused of Pacific nuclear cover-up | Special reports | Guardian Unlimited