“France cannot wage a war of high intensity”
La Croix: In your latest book, Letters to young people (1), you especially insist on notions of service to the country. A new strategic defense review recommends the introduction of compulsory national service. How does the former Chief of Defense General Staff respond to this announcement?
P. of V.: I am in favor of any device which promotes national unity, and we know that the army is a good laboratory in this sense. Universal national service could be one of the means to contribute to reducing the social, economic and geographical divisions that France suffers from today. However, such a project creates a number of problems. First, any system requiring long-term boarding for an age group of about 800,000 a year would cost billions of extra euros. Then you need to find the infrastructure to accommodate hundreds of thousands of young people within a few months. However, most of the barracks have been sold, demolished or abandoned. Finally, there is a lack of staff to supervise these young people. On average, the staff makes up a quarter of the French army. A figure that rises to 50% for military installations geared toward troubled youth.
In retrospect, was it wrong to end the military service?
P. of V.: At the time, most military leaders believed that armies should be professionalized because we saw the limits of the conscript army during the Gulf War. But I was also in favor of maintaining a separate system of a professional army – a mixed, egalitarian and universal national service – being built on a personal level. This “tax” paid by young people for national unity seemed important to me at a time when the divisions in society were increasing.
The end of the service also distanced the French from the military.
P. of V.: This risk was identified after studying professionalizing countries, particularly the British. Indeed, our current leaders, who are not doing their national service, sometimes have limited knowledge of defense issues.
This may have contributed to the many budget deficits we experienced after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, before efforts resumed in 2017. Nevertheless, young people are interested in these topics. They experienced the attacks of 2015 and today the Ukrainian war. They live in a more unstable world and feel it.
Isn’t it a myth to think that the military can solve the fractures in our society?
P. of V.: When he joined the military in 1974, antimilitarism was widespread. We could hardly say that we were “Saint-Cyrien” on the football field without being insulted. After that, armies have never been more popular among the people, especially among the youth. We may regret it, but the military has also become the firefighter of the Republic: while the missions continue to increase, the institution is reeling under budget cuts. Soldiers can introduce leaders, provide some feedback, and help with the reserve system and coordinated military service. But they cannot frame our youth. 800,000 young people a year are at risk of losing their operational capacity by not being able to meet their needs.
Against the background of the war in Ukraine, is France ready to make a big commitment?
P. of V.: Halfway through my military career, I prepared to face the Warsaw Pact in a high-intensity war. When the wall came down, we chose to build a projection army that could intervene anywhere in the world, but we lost the operational capability: the defense of the nation in arms and high-intensity combat.
We cannot wage a high-intensity war without adequate personnel and appropriate equipment. We no longer have the thickness in support, logistics, spare parts, ammunition, medical and surgical teams. Note that between 2009 and 2016, we cut 25% of our professional workforce, or approximately 50,000 jobs. What political myopia!
Do not the soldiers themselves have a share of responsibility? In the 2000s, they heard little about high-intensity conflicts.
P. of V.: When there is a defeat, we always blame the military. This is why I resigned as Chief of the Defense Staff in 2017: I didn’t want to be the Gamelin of the 21st century… All white papers (or strategic reviews) since 1993 begin with the reminder that there is more to this world. and more dangerous and unstable, before concluding that our means of defense would diminish. A soldier, he remains in his responsibility: to carry out the missions assigned by the political authorities.
In the fog of peace and war, it is up to our leaders to have a vision, set strategy and discern key trends. Since 2015, I have not changed one iota about the importance of preparing for the return of superpowers and the threat of Islamist terrorists. Crisis management, we know how to do it. High-intensity warfare is another scale. Because of their lack of vision, our leaders forgot that it was possible. It is a classic in history.
Doesn’t nuclear deterrence protect us from high-intensity conflicts?
P. of V.: Nuclear deterrence does not prevent a possible war on our soil when you know the device well. This is a misunderstanding of the concept of deterrence and its possible use. Moreover, before the Berlin Wall came down, we had the bomb and we were preparing for war on our own soil.
The Ministry of Defense wants to double the number of soldiers in reserve. We forgot them…
P. of V.: I don’t. This was one of my 2017 budget disagreements. For twenty years, all incoming ministers say that we will increase the reserve budget. I welcome announcements, but await implementation. We can clearly see the delay in the French defenses. Although we can release hundreds of billions of funds in a few days to protect the economy in the Covid era, when it comes to protecting the French territory, we remain in the accountant’s logic. I do not understand this inconsistency between the gravity of our country today and these endless discussions of several billion euros. But this is the price to be paid for the defense of France and the French people.