Military Wiki
Location of France
First nuclear weapon test February 13, 1960
First fusion weapon test August 23, 1968
Last nuclear test January 27, 1996
Largest yield test 2.6 Mt (August 20, 1968)
Total tests 210
Peak stockpile 540 (in 1992)
Current stockpile (usable and not) 298 (in 2011)
Maximum missile range >10,000 km/6,000 mi (M51 SLBM)

France is known to have an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction. 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 300 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 did not sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty, which gave it the option to conduct further nuclear tests until it signed and ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1996 and 1998 respectively. 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. Curie’s last assistant Bertrand Goldschmidt became the father of the French Bomb. After WW-II France's former position of leadership suffered greatly because of the instability of the Fourth Republic, and the lack of finance available.[4] During the Second World War Goldschmidt invented the now-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 its own program 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 at that time, although plans were made to build reactors for the large scale production of plutonium.[5]

However, in the 1950s a civilian 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 was 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.[6] In 1957, soon after Suez and the resulting diplomatic tension with both the USSR and the United States, French president René Coty decided on 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.[7] 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 an atomic bomb were taken, and a successful test took place in 1960. Since then France has developed and maintained its own nuclear deterrent, one intended to defend France even if the United States refused to risk its own cities by assisting Western Europe in a nuclear war.[8]

In 1986 Francis Perrin, French high-commissioner for atomic energy from 1951 to 1970 stated publicly that in 1949 Israeli scientists were invited to the Saclay nuclear research facility, this cooperation leading to a joint effort including sharing of knowledge between French and Israeli scientists especially those with knowledge from the Manhattan Project.[9][10][11] In 1956 as part their military alliance during the Suez Crisis 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, cooperation cooled by 1960 coinciding with a successful test with the French asking that Israel submit to international inspections.[12] According to Lieutenant Colonel Warner D. Farr in a report to the USAF Counterproliferation Center while France was previously a leader in nuclear research "Israel and France were at a similar level of expertise after the war, and Israeli scientists could make significant contributions to the French effort. Progress in nuclear science and technology in France and Israel remained closely linked throughout the early fifties. Israeli scientists probably helped construct the G-1 plutonium production reactor and UP-1 reprocessing plant at Marcoule."[13] In 1957 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.[14] 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".[15] The idea was short-lived. In 1958 de Gaulle became President and Germany and Italy were excluded.

France developed its nuclear and thermonuclear bombs without outside assistance. The United States, however, began providing technical assistance in the early 1970s through the 1980s. The aid was secret, unlike the relationship with the British nuclear program. The Nixon administration, unlike previous presidencies, did not oppose its allies' possession of atomic weapons and believed that the Soviets would find having multiple nuclear-armed Western opponents more difficult. Because the Atomic Energy Act of 1946 prohibited sharing information on nuclear weapon design, a method known as "negative guidance" or "Twenty Questions" was used; French scientists described to their American counterparts their research, and were told whether they were correct. Areas in which the French received help included MIRV, radiation hardening, missile design, intelligence on Soviet anti-missile defenses, and advanced computer technology. Because the French program attracted "the best brains" of the nation, the Americans benefited from French research as well. The relationship also improved the two nations' military ties; despite its departure from NATO's command structure in 1966, France developed two separate nuclear targeting plans, one "national" for the Force de Frappe's role as a solely French deterrent, and one coordinated with NATO.[8]

France is understood to have tested neutron or enhanced radiation bombs in the past, apparently leading the field with an early test of the technology in 1967[16] and an "actual" neutron bomb in 1980.[17]


There were 210 French nuclear tests from 1960 until 1996. Seventeen of them were done in the Algerian Sahara between 1960 and 1966, starting in the middle of the Algerian War. 193 were carried out in French Polynesia.[18][19]

Saharan experiments centers (1960–1966)

After studying Réunion, New Caledonia, and Clipperton Island, General Charles Ailleret, head of the Special Weapons Section, proposed two possible nuclear test sites for France in a January 1957 report: French Algeria in the Sahara Desert, and French Polynesia. Although he recommended against Polynesia because of its distance from France and lack of a large airport, Ailleret stated that Algeria should be chosen "provisionally", likely due in part to the Algerian War.[20]

A series of atmospheric nuclear tests was conducted by the Centre Saharien d'Expérimentations Militaires ("Saharan Military Experiments Center") from February 1960 until April 1961. The first, called "Gerboise bleue" ("blue jerboa") took place on 13 February 1960 in Algeria. 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/435 mi. south of Béchar.[21] 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 other 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 were present at the test sites, without any significant protection. At most, a shower after each test according to L'Humanité.[22] 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.[23]

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/93 mi. 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.[24] 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.[25] 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 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.[22] The incident was documented in the 2006 docudrama "Vive La Bombe!"[26]

Saharan facilities

  • C.I.E.E.S. (Centre Interarmées d'Essais d'Engins Spéciaux): Hammaguir, 120 km/75 mi southwest of Colomb-Béchar, Algeria:
used for launching rockets from 1947 to 1967.[27]
  • C.S.E.M. (Centre Saharien d'Expérimentations Militaires): Reggane, west of In-Salah, Tanezrouft, Algeria:
used for atmospheric tests from 1960 to 1961.
  • C.E.M.O. (Centre d'Expérimentations Militaires des Oasis): In Ekker, in the Hoggar, 150 km/93 mi from Tamanrasset, Tan Afella, Algeria:
used for underground tests from 1961 to 1967.

Pacific experiments center (1966–1996)

Despite its initial choice of Algeria for nuclear tests, the French government decided to build Faa'a International Airport in Tahiti, spending much more money and resources than would be justified by the official explanation of tourism. By 1958, two years before the first Sahara test, France began again its search for new testing sites due to potential political problems with Algeria and the possibility of a ban on above-ground tests. Many overseas France islands were studied, as well as performing underground tests in the Alps, Pyrenees, or Corsica; however, engineers found problems with most of the possible sites in metropolitan France.[20]

By 1962 France hoped in its negotiations with the Algerian independence movement to retain the Sahara as a test site until 1968, but decided that it needed to be able to also perform above-ground tests of hydrogen bombs, which could not be done in Algeria. Mururoa and Fangataufa in French Polynesia were chosen that year. President Charles de Gaulle announced the choice on 3 January 1963, describing it as a benefit to Polynesia's weak economy. The Polynesian people and leaders broadly supported the choice, although the tests became controversial after they began, especially among Polynesian separatists.[20]

A total of 193 nuclear tests were carried out in Polynesia from 1966 to 1996. On 24 August 1968 France detonated its first 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.

Simulation programme (1996–2012)

More recently, France has used supercomputers to simulate and study nuclear explosions.

Current nuclear doctrine and strategy

The French nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle and the American nuclear-powered carrier USS Enterprise (left), each of which carry nuclear-capable fighter aircraft

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.[28]

On 21 March 2008, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France will reduce its aircraft deliverable nuclear weapon stockpile (which currently consists of 60 TN 81 warheads) by a third (i.e. 20 warheads), thus bringing the total French nuclear arsenal to fewer than 300 warheads.[29][30]

Anti–nuclear tests protests

  • By 1968 only France and China were detonating nuclear weapons in the open air and the contamination caused by the H-bomb blast led to a global protest movement against further French atmospheric tests.[5]
  • From the early 1960s New Zealand peace groups CND and the Peace Media had been organising nationwide anti nuclear campaigns in protest of atmospheric testing in French Polynesia. These included two large national petitions presented to the New Zealand government which led to a joint New Zealand and Australian Government action to take France to the International Court of Justice (1972).[31]
  • In 1972, Greenpeace and an amalgam of New Zealand peace groups managed to delay nuclear tests by several weeks by trespassing with a ship in the testing zone. During the time, the skipper, David McTaggart, was beaten and severely injured by members of the French military.
  • In 1973 the New Zealand Peace Media organised an international flotilla of protest yachts including the Fri, Spirit of Peace, Boy Roel, Magic Island and the Tanmure to sail into the test exclusion zone.[32]
  • In 1973, New Zealand Prime Minister Norman Kirk as a symbolic act of protest sent two navy frigates, HMNZS Canterbury and HMNZS Otago, to Mururoa.[33] They were accompanied by HMAS Supply, a fleet oiler of the Royal Australian Navy.[34]
  • In 1985 the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior was bombed and sunk by the French DGSE in Auckland, New Zealand, as it prepared for another protest of nuclear testing in French military zones. One crew member, Fernando Pereira of Portugal, photographer, drowned on the sinking ship while attempting to recover his photographic equipment. Two members of DGSE were captured and sentenced, but eventually repatriated to France in a controversial affair.
  • French president Jacques Chirac’s decision to run a nuclear test series at Mururoa in 1995, just one year before the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty was to be signed, caused worldwide protest, including an embargo of French wine. These tests were meant to provide the nation with enough data to improve further nuclear technology without needing additional series of tests.[35]
  • The French Military conducted almost 200 nuclear tests at Mururoa and Fangataufa atolls over a thirty-year period ending 1996, 46 of them atmospheric, of which five were without significant nuclear yield. In August 2006, an official French government report by INSERM confirmed the link between an increase in the cases of thyroid cancer and France’s atmospheric nuclear tests in the territory since 1966.[36]

Veterans' associations and symposium

An association gathering veterans of nuclear tests (AVEN, "Association des vétérans des essais nucléaires") was created in 2001.[37] 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.[22] 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.

One hundred fifty thousand 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.[22] One French veteran of the 1960s nuclear tests in Algeria described being given no protective clothing or masks, while being ordered to witness the tests at so close a range that the flash penetrated through the arm he used to cover his eyes.[38] One of several veteran’s groups claiming to organise those suffering ill effects, AVEN had 4500 members in early 2009.[37]

Test victims compensation

In both Algeria and French Polynesia there have been long standing demands for compensation from those who claim injury from France’s nuclear testing program. The government of France had consistently denied, since the late 1960s, that injury to military personnel and civilians had been caused by their nuclear testing.[39] Several French veterans and African and Polynesian campaign groups have waged court cases and public relations struggles demanding government reparations. In May 2009, a group of twelve French veterans, in the campaign group "Truth and Justice", who claim to have suffered health effects from nuclear testing in the 1960s had their claims denied by the government Commission for the Indemnification of Victims of Penal Infraction (CIVI), and again by a Paris appeals court, citing laws which set a statute of limitations for damages to 1976.[40] Following this rejection, the government announced it would create a 10m Euro compensation fund for military and civilian victims of its testing programme; both those carried out in the 1960s and the Polynesian tests of 1990–1996.[39] Defence Minister Hervé Morin said the government would create a board of physicians, overseen by a French judge magistrate, to determine if individual cases were caused by French testing, and if individuals were suffering from illnesses on a United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation list of eighteen disorders linked to exposure to testing.[39][41] Pressure groups, including the Veterans group "Truth and Justice" criticised the programme as too restrictive in illnesses covered and too bureaucratic. Polynesian groups said the bill would also unduly restrict applicants to those who had been in small areas near the test zones, not taking into account the pervasive pollution and radiation.[42] Algerian groups had also complained that these restrictions would deny compensation to many victims. One Algerian group estimated there were 27,000 still living victims of ill effects from the 1960–66 testing there, while the French government had given an estimate of just 500.[43]

Non-nuclear WMD

France states that it does not currently have chemical weapons. The country 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.

During WW-I in August 1914 France was actually the first to use chemical weapons though this was only a nonlethal tear gas attack(xylyl bromide). Once the war had slowed to trench warfare and new methods to attain an advantage were sought the German Army initiated a chlorine gas attack against the French Army at Ypres on 15 April 1915 opening a new type of warfare but failing that day to exploit the break in the French line. In time Phosgene replaced chlorine in use by armies on the western front including France leading to massive casualties on both sides of the conflict though later the effects were mitigated by development of protective clothing and masks. At the outbreak of World War II, France had a stockpile of mustard gas and phosgene but did not use them against the invading Axis army. Testing of chemical weapons occurred at a site called B2-Namous in Algeria though other sites likely existed.[44][45]

See also

Notes and references

  1. "CNS - Chemical and Biological Weapons Possession and Programs Past and Present". Federation of American Scientists. Retrieved 2008-03-21. [dead link]
  2. "France and the Chemical Weapons Convention". French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs. Retrieved 2008-03-21. 
  3. Table of French Nuclear Forces (Natural Resources Defense Council, 2002)
  4. "Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD): Nuclear Weapons". 
  5. 5.0 5.1 Origin of the Force de Frappe (Nuclear Weapon Archive)
  6. Stuck in the Canal, Fromkin, David - Editorial in The New York Times, 28 October 2006
  7. [1]
  8. 8.0 8.1 Ullman, Richard H. (Summer 1989). "The Covert French Connection". pp. 3–33. JSTOR 1148862. 
  14. Die Erinnerungen, Franz Josef Strauss - Berlin 1989, p. 314
  15. Germany, the NPT, and the European Option (WISE/NIRS Nuclear Monitor)
  16. BBC News: Neutron bomb: Why 'clean' is deadly
  17. UK parliamentary question on whether condemnation was considered by Thatcher government [2]
  18. Treize ans après le dernier des essais nucléaires français, l'indemnisation des victimes en marche. Hervé ASQUIN, AFP. 27 May 2009.
  19. Four decades of French nuclear testing. Julien PEYRON, France24. Tuesday 24 March 2009.
  20. 20.0 20.1 20.2 Regnault, Jean-Mark (10 2003). "France's Search for Nuclear Test Sites, 1957–1963". pp. 1223–1248. JSTOR 3396887. 
  21. French Senate report #179: The first French tests in the Sahara
  22. 22.0 22.1 22.2 22.3 La bombe atomique en héritage, L'Humanité, February 21, 2007 (French)
  23. 1960: France explodes third atomic bomb, BBC On This Day (English)
  24. France’s Nuclear Weapons
  25. Dossier de présentation des essais nucléaires et leur suivi au Sahara
  28. "France 'would use nuclear arms'". BBC News, Thursday 19 January 2006
  29. Nucléaire : Mise à l'eau du terrible devant Sarkozy - France - LCI
  30. "France cuts its nuclear weapons by a third". The Daily Telegraph (London).
  34. Frame, Tom (2004). No Pleasure Cruise: The Story of the Royal Australian Navy. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin. p. 251. ISBN 1-74114-233-4. 
  35. Les essais nucleaires—report of the French Senate (in French)
  36. Lichfield, John (4 August 2006). "France's nuclear tests in Pacific 'gave islanders cancer'". The Independent. London. Retrieved 18 October 2012. 
  37. 37.0 37.1 Les victimes des essais nucléaires enfin reconnues. Marie-Christine Soigneux, Le Montange (Clermont-Ferrand). 27 May 2009.
  38. « J’ai participé au premier essai dans le Sahara » DANIEL BOURDON, 72 ans, de Thourotte. Le Parisien. 24 May 2009.
  39. 39.0 39.1 39.2 Government earmarks €10 million for nuclear test victims. France 24. Tuesday 24 March 2009.
  40. Court denies nuclear test victims compensation. France 24. Friday 22 May 2009
  41. Essais nucléaires français au sud de l’Algérie: La France définit six critères. "La voix de l’oranie" (Oran, Algeria). 21 May 2009.
  42. Nuclear compensation bill falls short of expectations. France24. Wednesday 27 May 2009
  43. VICTIMES ALGÉRIENNES DES ESSAIS NUCLÉAIRES FRANÇAIS. Sur quels critères sera évalué le handicap?. L'Expression (Algeria), 18 May 2009, p.24


  • (French) Jean-Hugues Oppel, Réveillez le président, Éditions Payot et rivages, 2007 (ISBN978-2-7436-1630-4). The book is a fiction about the nuclear weapons of France; the book also contains about ten chapters on true historical incidents involving nuclear weapons and strategy (during the second half of the twentieth century).

External links

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