March 13, 2013 / 7:16 PM / 5 years ago

French Senate warns Hollande against big defence cuts

* 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 (Reuters) - 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 soldiers.

“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 mid-year.

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)

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