* France mulls defence budget cut to below 1.5 pct of GDP
* Strategic military review due by end of month
* Senators say cuts would be "breaking point" for military
By John Irish and Patrick Vignal
PARIS, March 13 France's Senate threatened on
Wednesday to reject plans by the government to slash the
country's defence budget as part of cost-cutting measures,
saying it would leave the military at "breaking point."
The Socialist government is battling to reduce state
spending by 60 billion euros ($78 billion) over President
Francois Hollande's five-year term, and was forced last week to
order ministries to save an extra 5 billion in 2014 as its
deficit target receded.
The defence ministry has borne the brunt of government cuts
in recent years, seeing its annual budget fall from about 2.5
percent of economic output after the Cold War to 1.56 percent of
GDP, about 31 billion euros, in 2012.
Those figures are already in stark contrast with NATO's
recommendation of 2 percent of gross domestic product, which it
says is the minimum to ensure a country's sovereignty.
The Socialist-dominated upper house of parliament said on
Wednesday that any decision to cut the budget to below 1.5
percent, or 30 billion euros, would be too much.
"I am convinced that our security will be compromised if the
measures to reduce the defence budget are adopted," Jean-Louis
Carrere, the Socialist president of the Senate's Foreign and
Affairs and Defence Committee told reporters.
"We have a pocket-sized army that is of great quality, but
that ultimately is vulnerable."
Highlighting the Senate's fears, he said that of the extra 5
billion euros the government has ordered to be cut in 2014, the
defence ministry had been earmarked to contribute 1 billion.
The cuts will come at a sensitive time for Paris. France's
military has won plaudits for its ongoing intervention in Mali
to help its former colony to oust Islamist rebels, but at the
same time the operation has highlighted its limitations in
refuelling, troop transportation and intelligence gathering.
The French Armed Forces total about 230,000 personnel
compared to the United States which has about 1.4 million
"President Hollande has choices to make because of the
European recession, but I would simply say that defence is for
the long-term and cannot be hit by temporary budget cuts,"
former defence minister and committee member Jean-Pierre
Chevenement said. "France is at stake."
France's latest five-year military strategy review is due by
the end of March and will set the basis for the ministry's
spending programme up to 2019.
Parliament will vote on the spending programme around
Carrere, who was speaking on behalf of all the Senate's
political parties excluding the Greens, said the finance
ministry was working on several possibilities, including a
worst-case scenario that would see the defence budget gradually
fall to 1.1 percent by 2025.
Should the 1.5 percent threshold be crossed this year there
was a good chance the Senate would reject it, Carrere said.
While the National Assembly has the last say on legislation,
opposition from left-wingers in the Senate would embarrass
Hollande, already struggling with low confidence ratings, and
could stoke a rebellion in the lower house.
Carrere said that the issue had also been discussed with
lawmakers in the lower house who appeared to back the Senate.
"If we let the finance ministry do what it wants, then in 20
years, there will be no defence left in France," said a senator
from the main opposition UMP party.
(Writing by John Irish; Editing by Michael Roddy)