No surprise last week that French president Nicolas Sarkozy was trying to catch some of the reflected magic of Barack Obama’s European tour.

Sarkozy is engaged in a tough battle to win public acceptance of the various parts of his reform program, including tangling with a constituency that usually doesn’t give centre-right politicians much trouble: the military.

Sarkozy first announced a shake-up of the military last month, promising to cut more than 50,000 jobs and reorient France’s strategic posture more towards fighting terrorism rather than conventional warfare.

Now the government has released its detailed plans, including the closure of 83 military sites. The new “carte militaire”, or military map, is causing huge angst in French towns that depend on army garrisons for their economic livelihood.

Le Figaro has mapped the sites involved:

Defence minister Hervé Morin, interviewed in Le Figaro says that the changes are “necessary and indispensable”. “The plan is not intended to save money, but to permit us to adapt and modernise.” Fancy a centre-right government thinking the military can be improved by some means other than just increasing expenditure.

It’s proverbial that generals are always ready to fight the last war.

As a glance at the map shows, France’s forces have been poised overwhelmingly in the north-east of the country, ready to again fight off the ground invasion from Germany that came three times in 70 years, and was widely expected a fourth time during the Cold War. A few were also based in the south-east to keep watch on the Italians.

The size of the French army, much the biggest in the EU, reflects the same historical experience, a hangover from the time when the destiny of nations was decided by mass conscript armies. It all made sense at the time, but is now absurdly obsolete.

In the same way, Australia remains ready to fight the Vietnam war again: to play second fiddle to the Americans in counter-insurgency warfare against some loosely defined threat from the north. No serious thought goes into whether this is really a national priority to justify the huge sums of money we throw at it.

But somehow France’s leaders are willing to take on the vested interests of the military in a way that ours are not. Perhaps it’s because the French know that war is real, not just a source of playthings for politicians.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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