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France to cut nuclear arsenal

CHERBOURG, France (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced cuts in France’s atomic arsenal on Friday but vowed to keep a strong enough deterrent against threats such as the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran.

France's President Nicolas Sarkozy poses as he inaugurates "Le Terrible", a new generation nuclear-armed submarine, in Cherbourg, western France March 21, 2008. REUTERS/Christophe Ena/Pool

Speaking at the launch of France’s fourth of its latest generation of nuclear-armed submarines, the “Terrible” (Fearsome), Sarkozy said his nation had to face new security threats, including Iran, and needed to be able to strike back forcefully if attacked.

“Everyone must be aware today that even far-flung powers’ nuclear missiles can reach Europe in less than half an hour,” Sarkozy said in a speech at the northern port of Cherbourg.

While only major powers had such means today, countries in Asia and the Middle East were conducting a “forced march” to acquire such ballistic missile capabilities, he added.

“I am thinking in particular of Iran. Iran is increasing the range of its missiles while grave suspicions hang over its nuclear program. Europe’s security is at stake,” he said.

Sarkozy noted that an experts’ commission would present proposals on security and national defense reform in coming weeks but he said the defense budget would not be cut.

“The defense budget is the second biggest in the state. It will stay that way and it will not decline,” he said.

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But he pledged to keep tight control of spending on France’s nuclear deterrent, which he said matched the equivalent of half the national justice or transport budgets and said the atomic arsenal would be kept to the strict minimum necessary.

He said the airborne nuclear strike force would be cut by a third, leaving France with fewer than 300 warheads.

“That is half the maximum number of warheads we had during the Cold War,” he said.

PROLIFERATION

Sarkozy’s reference to Iran underlined the changed circumstances since the end of the Cold War.

The U.N. Security Council has passed three rounds of sanctions against Iran for failing to allay fears that it is trying to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of a civilian power program.

Iran denies the charges, saying it only wants to make electricity. It also continues to expand its long-range missile program, and says it can hit targets 2,000 km (1,250 miles) away, heightening concern in the West.

“In the face of proliferation, the international community must be united, the international community must be resolute. Because we want peace, we must be without weakness with those who violate international norms,” Sarkozy said in a thinly veiled reference to the Islamic republic.

Sarkozy proposed measures to limit nuclear stockpiles and put an end to weapons testing after his predecessor Jacques Chirac sparked international outrage by testing arms in the south Pacific shortly after his 1995 election.

France has since signed and ratified the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty and he called on other countries to do the same, including nuclear powers the United States and China. He also suggested setting further limits on proliferation.

He suggested talks should start on a treaty banning production of fissile materials for nuclear weapons and proposed talks on a treaty banning short- and mid-range ground-to-ground missiles, a category which includes Scud-type missiles.

Writing by Francois Murphy; Editing by Ibon Villelabeitia

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