Skip to main content
Blog post

“A project that, in its letter if not its spirit, constitutes a revision of the Charter”: French Ambivalence toward the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, 1960-1969

Jonathan Hunt

Among the members of the nuclear club, France exhibited the most ambivalence toward nuclear nonproliferation talks from 1960 to 1969.

UN Secretary-General, U Thant (left), during his visit to Elysee Palace for discussions with President Charles de Gaulle (centre) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Maurice Couve de Murville (right).
UN Secretary-General, U Thant (left), during his visit to Elysee Palace on July 21, 1964, for discussions with President Charles de Gaulle (centre) and Minister of Foreign Affairs Maurice Couve de Murville (right).

Among the members of the nuclear club, President Charles de Gaulle’s Fifth French Republic exhibited the most ambivalence toward nuclear nonproliferation talks from 1958 to 1968. Whereas the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union all threw their public support behind some version of an agreement barring the club’s door, and the People’s Republic of China attacked the notion as a new form of colonialism, the Elysée Palace and the French Foreign Ministry at the Quai d’Orsay harbored and expressed mixed feelings.

On the one hand, ever since Irish Foreign Minister Frank Aiken first outlined a restriction pact in the summer of 1958, the French had been included even though their first nuclear test was 18 months away. On the other hand, de Gaulle dismissed nuclear arms control and disarmament initiatives whose negotiating parties included any save the nuclear powers. If what the wartime leader of the Free French had aimed at when he embraced the independent arsenal known as the force de frappe was a seat at the high table of international politics, it was a point of both pride and principle that that table include only the great powers. As Gabrielle Hect demonstrates in The Radiance of France, French political and technocratic elites, reeling from the traumas of the Second World War as well as colonial revolts in Indochina and North Africa, embraced civilian and military nuclear power as sources of legitimacy both at home and abroad.

French involvement with the negotiation of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) was consequently more negative than positive. In protest against the presence of non-nuclear-weapon states, including eight non-aligned and neutral delegations from nation-states in Latin America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, the French Foreign Ministry expressed an “attitude of abstention” relative to a global nonproliferation pact. This attitude would justify France’s “empty chair” on the Eighteen Nation Committee on Disarmament (ENDC), the arms control and disarmament gathering that met in the Council Chambers of the Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland from 1962 to 1969, where French diplomats would limit themselves to an observer role despite their official inclusion among the group of five Western, five Eastern, and eight neutral and non-aligned nations.

The formal non-involvement of France in the drafting of the NPT did not mean, however, that France did not take an interest in the proceedings. De Gaulle, the French Foreign Ministry, and the French Atomic Energy Commission all followed the drafting process closely with particular interest in the implications of a new world-bestriding nuclear regime for the French stake in the European Atomic Energy Community (EURATOM), West Germany’s military nuclear potential, and the inclusion of United Nations Security Council guarantees alongside the nonproliferation agreement. The latter gave rise to unease among French Foreign Ministry lawyers that the NPT, among other faults, “hierarchizes forms of aggression and introduces an ambiguous concept of ‘threat of aggression.’” While de Gaulle’s government would decide not to sign the accord despite such misgivings about preventive war, the French would pass up a golden opportunity to sabotage the nonproliferation campaign once it reached the Security Council, in hopes that West Germany’s non-nuclear status would be institutionalized and the US-sourced fissile material needed for French civilian nuclear development would not be jeopardized.

Documents from the Archive diplomatique de France and from the Maurice Couve de Murville and Michel Debré papers at the Centre d’Histoire at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Science Po) illuminate how France’s ambivalent but ultimately acquiescent attitude toward the NPT’s letter and spirit evolved from 1960 to 1969. Below I share descriptions of several key documents, translations of which are available on the Wilson Center Digital Archive.

List of Documents

Maurice Couve de Murville, “Réflexions sur la poursuite isolée par la France de la constitution d’un “deterrent” autonome” 2 March 1960, CM7.1960, Maurice Couve de Murville papers [MCM], Centre d'histoire de Sciences Po [CHSP].

This Foreign Ministry analysis was written for French Foreign Minister Maurice Couve de Murville. It spells out the obstacles facing an independent deterrent two weeks after France’s first nuclear test on February 13, 1960. The author cautions that a “minor deterrent” of a few dozen 100-kiloton atom bombs loaded on vulnerable, short-range Mirage IV A fighter-bombers would cost hundreds of billions of francs. Intermediate-range ballistic missiles with which to threaten Moscow would require an additional 8-10 years and a further cost of 500 billion francs (around $100 billion in 1960). In order to match the superpowers’ thermonuclear level, that figure could rise as a high as “several trillion” over more than a decade, during which time the United States and the Soviet Union might well leapfrog the French force de dissuasion.

Maurice Couve de Murville to Prime Minister Michel Debré, “Revision du Traité d’Euratom/Revision of the EURATOM Treaty,” March 15, 1960, CM7.1960, MCM, CHSP.

The French decision to join EURATOM was conditioned on the regional agency not impinging on national nuclear programs. As early as 1955, French Prime Minister Guy Mollet had instructed French negotiators that “Euratom will not be an obstacle toward the possible decision of France … to build nuclear weapons.”[1] While EURATOM’s jurisdiction would be limited to negotiating purchases of fissile materials, promoting trade with the United States and the United Kingdom, and exchanging reactors designs and civilian technology among members of the Atlantic community, Couve de Murville credited EURATOM with a fringe benefit--monitoring West Germany. In this spring 1960 letter to Prime Minister Michel Debré about revising the treaty, he warned against the removal of EURATOM controls over raw uranium and thorium or enriched uranium. Their removal, he cautioned, would create a dilemma: “either abandon the idea that German’s renunciation of atomic armaments could be enforced or support the enforcement of equivalent controls under the West European Union, which … would interfere in the direction of our programs and the development of our nuclear weapons.”

Francis Perrin, "La politique étrangère française en matière d'armament atomique, particulièrement en ce qui concerne la prolifération de ces armements,” 28 February 1967, MCM, CHSP.

Nonproliferation talks entered their decisive phase after the submission of a joint U.S.-Soviet draft to the ENDC on February 21, 1967. One week later, High-Commissioner of the French Commissariat à l’énergie atomique, Francis Perrin, assessed France’s options. It was not “by accident,” he noted, the original five UN Security Council permanent members—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, the Soviet Union, and China—were in line for nuclear-club membership: “…they are the same profound reasons, of a geographical, demographic or other nature, which led to the choice [in 1945] … of the countries with special responsibilities in the maintenance of world peace.” After noting how advances in “India, Israel, Japan, Sweden, and also West Germany” portended the further spread of nuclear weapons—and acknowledging France had itself sought help with its weapon program—Perrin pondered whether proliferation might hasten nuclear disarmament by convincing the superpowers of its merits. In the end, however, fear of a “large and hostile” nuclear-armed PRC made him pessimistic. While he did not advise signing the NPT, it would be “very important” for France to affirm publicly, if unilaterally, “its constant policy since 1958 … not to cede any atomic weapon or any atomic explosive device to a country which does not possess it, and not to help any such country to manufacture them.” He dismissed internal opposition toward the NPT as defensive—"an a posteriori justification of the French decision to constitute an atomic armament."More significant was the likelihood West Germany would gain its own atomic arsenal, jeopardizing France’s “dominant political position among the Europe of the Six” members of the European Communities and reviving Cold War tensions in Europe. He finished with an eye-opening analysis of how the Kosygin proposal for nuclear-weapon states to extend negative security guarantees to non-nuclear-weapon states’ signatory to the NPT would not impede the use of French nuclear armaments against a West German blitzkrieg backed by the United States.

Traité de Non-proliferation,” note, 18 March 1968, 3–6; note, “Le traité de non proliferation des armes nucléaire—etat de la negotiation,” note, 19 March 1968, box 768, Cote 517INVA, Box 768, Centre d'archives diplomatiques de La Courneuve [CADLC].

The finalization of a completed draft nuclear nonproliferation treaty, which the ENDC transmitted to the United Nations without endorsement on March 18, 1968, launched a French review of the NPT’s implications for international law. The draft NPT was accompanied by a proposed United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSC), whose soft guarantees against nuclear-weapon use or threats had been a compromise worked out between Washington and Moscow. An initial study by Foreign Ministry lawyers identified numerous “juridical reasons… to fight against a project that, in its letter if not its spirit, constitutes a revision of the [UN] Charter:”

"[I[t discriminates among non-nuclears to the advantage of treaty signatories; it hierarchizes forms of aggression and introduces the ambiguous concept of “threat of aggression;” it distinguishes among the permanent members those which possess nuclear arms and invests thereby the present situation with an anti-Chinese character that Beijing does not fail to note. Finally, it departs from the established jurisdiction of the Security Council, whose decisions have always applied to specific problems."

The report elaborated on how the hierarchization of “forms of aggression” would “downgrade” non-nuclear (i.e. conventional) violence. Non-nuclear-weapon states treaty signatories would receive non-binding security guarantees. The “Anglo-Saxons and Soviets” would maintain “freedom of action as far as what measures they choose to adopt.” Although the French government’s foremost legal experts opted not to recommend vetoing the UNSC resolution, they warned the NPT package could serve as a warrant for nuclear-armed permanent members of the UN Security Council to wage “preventive war” in the name of worldwide nonproliferation.

Note pour Direction des Affaires Politiques – Désarmement, “Garanties des non nucléaires. Projet de résolution du Conseil de Sécurité,” 29 March 1968, box 768, cote 517INVA, CADLC.

This short research note briefly explores the case for and against vetoing the UNSC resolution. As the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Soviet Union were serving as co-sponsors, and the Republic of China on Taiwan would welcome any international measure the People’s Republic of China opposed, France was the only state in a position to veto the UNSC resolution and perhaps torpedo the NPT when the UNGA special session met in late April 1968. If France were to abstain, it would be henceforth bound by the resolution. Even so, the report cautioned whether “a negative attitude” should outweigh “the downside of defeating a project whose intention, if not whose content, fulfills the wishes of the vast majority of non-nuclear delegations.”

Ministère des affaires étrangères, Direction des affaires politiques, Désarmement, Note, “La Question de la non-prolifération des armes nucléaires” and 2 Annexes, 3 April 1968, box 768, cote 517INVA, CADLC.

This 18-page memorandum was circulated to French embassies on the eve of the special UNGA session. The report recaps the series of events leading up to the international meeting, including the early history of the treaty, through an article-by-article analysis of the treaty text’s negotiating history. After reviewing the contexts in which the treaty was negotiated, the report concluded by citing three major elements as informing the French attitude. The first was the German question and, specifically, how the NPT would internationalize West Germany’s non-nuclear status, deepening its dependence on France. The second was the positive attitude of most nations—the vast majority of which lacked the wherewithal to build nuclear deterrents—to institutionalize their neighbors’ non-nuclear-weapon status. The third and “most remarkable element” was the U.S.-Soviet joint effort, undeterred by the Vietnam War, “to consolidate the current world balance under their dual control.” French “reservations” therefore boiled down to two critiques of the emerging regime: that it would “consolidate nuclear monopolies,” namely the U.S. and Soviet power blocs, “and legalize discrimination between States.”

Note pour Ministère des Affaires Étrangères, Direction des Affaires Politiques – Désarmement, “le traité de non prolifération des armes nucléaires,” 10 July 1968, box 769, cote 517INVA, CADLC.

This report recounts developments at the UN First Committee from the beginning of the special session, April 24, to the plenary vote on June 12, 1968. Among the interesting observations was how the “most important resistance cell had … surprisingly developed among the Black African states,” who had sought concessions from the United States on apartheid South Africa’s mandate over South West Africa (modern-day Namibia). The report notes the various changes forced on the superpowers by Italy and Mexico on behalf of the non-nuclear-weapon delegations. The aide-memoire concluded that “[a]lthough these concessions [were] more apparent than real, they served as a pretext for a number of delegations, under intense Soviet and American pressure, to go along with the draft resolution thus revised.” The French delegate to the United Nations, Armand Berard, explained to the General Assembly on June 12 the reasons for France’s abstention. In accordance with Francis Perrin’s recommendations, Berard elaborated that although France would not sign the NPT when “the real issue was effective nuclear disarmament,” it would nonetheless pledged to behave “[e]xactly in such a way as those States which opt to adhere to it.”

Prime Minister Michel Debré to President Charles de Gaulle, 1 August 1968, Papers of Maurice Couve de Murville, Michel Debré files, 5DE, CHSP.

De Gaulle was not shy about his desire for an independent nuclear force. In an address to the French nation on April 19, 1963, he spoke of how industrial reconstruction and decolonization had rebuilt France, which “finds itself for the first time in half a century with the mind and hands free.” While in de Gaulle’s public speeches he emphasized the military advantages of not having to rely on the U.S. nuclear umbrella, he also explicitly linked the force de frappe to French intentions “to remain the master [of its defense]” lest its effort become “the soulless, forceless [one] of a people not responsible for themselves.”[2] Elsewhere that year, he warned that to proceed without nuclear radiance “would hand over to the Anglo-Saxons our chances of life and … death on the one hand, and … our industrial potential on the other.”[3] This letter from Gaullist Prime Minister Michel Debré, written one month after the NPT opened for signature, intimates why an otherwise maverick French government had made peace with a pact whose origins in U.S.-Soviet hegemony raised “the danger of satellitism, which has not only its political aspect but its economic aspect, through a takeover of French decision-making centers.”

"The great theme and the great realities of our policy are, I am sure, summed up in this formula of General de Gaulle: "France must be a nation with free hands. But on the other hand, it is also essential to clearly understand what are the limits of present-day France in the world, and consequently the limits of its ambitions. It is on this that it is necessary to conceive, I am convinced, what is the meaning of our attitude in matters of foreign policy."

This blog post forms part of a project on the constitutional history of the NPT funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York.

[1] Cited in Grégoire Mallard, Fallout: Nuclear Diplomacy in an Age of Global Fracture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014), 129-130.

[2] Charles de Gaulle, Presidential Speech, 19 April 1963, Foundation Charles de Gaulle.

[3] Gabrielle Hecht, The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998), 94.

About the Author

Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt

Former Title VIII Research Scholar;
Visiting scholar at the University of Southampton; assistant professor of strategy at the U.S. Air War College

Jonathan Hunt is a historian of America and the world, a visiting scholar at the University of Southampton, an assistant professor of strategy at the U.S. Air War College, and the author of The Nuclear Club: How America and the World Policed the Atom from Hiroshima to Vietnam.

Read More

History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more

Cold War International History Project

The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more

Nuclear Proliferation International History Project

The Nuclear Proliferation International History Project is a global network of individuals and institutions engaged in the study of international nuclear history through archival documents, oral history interviews, and other empirical sources. At the Wilson Center, it is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more