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France eyes wider defense role

After two decades as the odd man out in the Western defense structure, France is shifting its strategic outlook toward playing a broader role in West European defense.

Officials are reluctant to acknowledge that anything has changed, Monitor contributor Jonathan Fenby writes. But France's defense plan for 1984-88, approved this week by the Cabinet, makes it clear French thinking is moving toward greater cooperation with the other NATO powers in the event of war. For example, the Army is to get a mobile, helicopter-borne antitank force. French sources say it's designed to operate in West Germany in close cooperation with other allied forces. The plan also gives the go-ahead for developing a nuclear warhead missile force with a 220-mile range. These so-called Hades missiles, based in eastern France, will be able to reach into East Germany. France's present Pluton missiles can go no farther than the middle of West Germany.

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French President Francois Mitterrand is firmly attached to the development of Western defense. But in building up France's nuclear forces, he is out of step with most of his allies, who have made conventional weapons a high priority. They fear that NATO's inferiority in conventional forces to the Warsaw Pact could force it into early use of nuclear weapons in a conflict. Building up conventional forces would provide more time before the nuclear threshold had to be crossed.

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