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. France to reduce nuclear arsenal, warns of Iran danger
CHERBOURG, France, March 21 (AFP) Mar 21, 2008
President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a cut in France's nuclear arsenal on Friday but warned most of the weapons will remain as "life-insurance" against new threats from states such as Iran.

"Countries in Asia and the Middle East are rapidly developing ballistic capacities," he said, in a defence policy speech to mark the launch of a new-generation nuclear submarine named "The Terrible".

"I am thinking in particular of Iran," he said, warning that Tehran was "increasing the range of its missiles while serious suspicions weigh on its nuclear programme."

The announced cuts will reduce France's stock of air-launched weapons by a third, but leave France's far larger submarine missile arsenal in place.

"France will not lower its guard," Sarkozy warned, describing French nuclear deterrence as "the life insurance of the nation."

"Anyone who threatened our vital interests would expose themselves to a severe nuclear response," he said in the northwestern port of Cherbourg in his first major speech on France's nuclear arsenal since he was elected last May.

It is "of course the security of Europe that is at stake," he added.

"It is a fact that France's nuclear forces by their very existence are a key element in its security," he said, urging Europe to join "an open dialogue on the role of deterrence and its contribution to our common security."

Western nations led by the United States accuse Iran of seeking to develop the atomic bomb, a charge which Tehran rejects, insisting that its nuclear activities are peaceful and aimed at meeting energy needs.

France has toughened its line on Iran since Sarkozy's election and is now much closer to that of the United States.

But Sarkozy said France would continue with its commitment to the goal of global nuclear disarmament.

"I have decided on a new disarmament measure: for the airborne component, the number of nuclear weapons, of missiles and of aircraft will be reduced by one third," he told an audience of defence officials and dock workers.

The reduction will leave France with less than 300 nuclear warheads, half the maximum number it had during the Cold War, the president said.

The Federation of American Scientists, which tries to record the number of atomic weapons around the world, estimates that France currently has 348 nuclear warheads, the bulk of them submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

France's 60 Mirage 2000-N nuclear-equipped fighter jets, are to be replaced from next year 2009 with 40 Rafale aircraft fitted with new-generation missiles.

The country's estimated 40 Super-Etendard nuclear-equipped fighter jets based on aircraft carriers are also to be replaced with Rafales from 2009.

"It is a significant reduction. Mr Sarkozy is showing that France is maintaining the level of deterrence that is absolutely necessary, and that it is disarming whenever possible," said French defence expert Bruno Tertrais.

"It is also a message of transparency sent to the Americans and the British to say 'Look, we are being open about our arsenal' when this is perhaps not the case with them," he added.

Sarkozy said he wanted to break with a tradition of secrecy surrounding the number of warheads owned by France, calling on the five major nuclear powers recognised by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) -- France, Britain, United States, Russia and China -- to agree on ways to promote transparency.

The president called for talks on a new international treaty banning short and medium range ground-to-ground missiles and another treaty banning the production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons.

The United States in 2006 proposed a similar treaty.

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