The recent announcement by President Valery Giscard d'Estaing about the possibility of deploying the neutron bomb as an integral part of France's independent defense system has reactivated national controversy over nuclear deterrents.
Although France has been experimenting with the neutron bomb since 1976, the French President said that a decision to start producing will not be taken until 1982 or 1983. This will depend, he said, "on the state of nuclear arms in Europe at that time as far as can be predicted."
Analysts also feel that Mr. Giscard d'Estaing does not want the nuclear issue to become part of electoral polemics during the 1981 presidential campaign.
All of France's major political parties, except the Communists, have more or less agreed on the government's decision to continue research into the bomb. But the Gaullists have made it clear that its introduction into the defense system would contradict the principles of Charles de Gaulle by reducing the deterrent effect of tactical nuclear weapons. It would encourage, they fear, the risk of limited nuclear warfare.
Jacques Chirac, head of the Gaullist Rassemblement Pour la Republique (RPR) party, strongly feels that France's best chances of survival depend on what he calls "strategic nuclear dissuasion."
Recently, the RPR leader called for the construction of four new nuclear submarimes by 1992, which would be equipped with the M-4 missiles. This is France's new six-headed strategic nuclear missile with a range of about 3,000 miles. At present, there are only five nuclear submarines in the French Navy. A sixth is to be launched in 1985. As for France's strategic arms, which are kept in underground silos in Provence, the French President said they would soon be moved to mobile missile launchers to reduce the "knockout" ratio in the event of an attack.
The Gaullists believe that the limited destruction characteristics of the neutron bomb would only compromise France's nuclear strategic arsenal.
"Strategic weapons are meant to serve as a dire warning to the enemy because of the terrific consequences involved," said one RPR military analyst. Gaullist defense specialists believe that ideally France should have the nuclear capability of destroying 60 of the Soviet Union's major cities.
President Giscard d'Estaing reaffirmed France's traditional reliance on an independent nuclear strategic deterrent outside the NATO umbrella. "Any attack on France," he said June 27, "will provoke an automatic nuclear response." But it is evident that the French President is seeking a more flexible approach than all-out war. In a departure from Charles de Gaulle's go-it-alone foreign policies, Mr. Giscard d'Estaing emphasized that FRance must remain independent, but not "nuetral, or neutralist," as the West already has 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons. "France is directly concerned with the security of its neighbors," he said.
French official attitude toward the neutron bomb is that, depending on the strategy used, it can either serve as an offensive or a defensive weapon. As far as France is concerned, they claim, it would serve as the latter.
In the event of a European conflict, one analyst pointed out, this "clean bomb" is ideal. "It would permit France to support its allies of the Atlantic alliance without irreversibly damaging the towns and infrastructures of the countries concerned," he said.
The advantage of the neutron bomb is that it can be used against enemy forces operating in the vicinity of allied troops. Because of its limited heat and explosive characteristics, little damage is caused to buildings or other installations.
Neutron radiation, however, easily penetrates armor and would kill everyone inside a tank. Nearby allied soldiers on the other hand would be protected by earthen shelters through which neutrons cannot pass.
But in what many Frenchmen consider to be a conflict between the two superpowers, a question increasingly debated here is whether France should have nuclear weapons.
According to a recent poll, the majority of Frenchmen have shown themselves to be extremely afraid of an all-out nuclear conflict. Although they are against a Finlandization of their country in the event of an attack from the East, 58 percent believe that France should, under no circumstances, use nuclear weapons.
They consider it a foregone conclusion, however, that the United States would come to their aid in the event of Soviet aggression. But they also make it clear that they would not give any military support to the US if Moscow cut off oil supplies to the West.