“The security of Europe is at stake,” he said, conflating the Continent’s interests with those of France.“Countries in Asia and the Middle East are rapidly developing ballistic capacities,” he said. “I am thinking in particular of Iran,” which is “increasing the range of its missiles while serious suspicions weigh on its nuclear program.”
Mr. Sarkozy, stung by defeats in local elections in some large French cities, stuck to traditional presidential themes of national security and defense. His sudden divorce and remarriage, and his tendency to flit from one scheme to another, have made him seem slightly unserious, contributing to his party’s losses.
His mood on Friday was somber, as he inaugurated a new generation of nuclear submarine of the “Triomphant” class, this one named Le Terrible, which could be best translated as The Fearsome. It will be equipped with a new, nuclear-tipped missile, the M-51, whose range is secret but is understood, according to Le Monde, to be some 4,970 miles, able to reach Asia.
Clearly trying to balance nuclear modernization with gestures toward a European population more interested in eliminating nuclear weapons than improving them, Mr. Sarkozy said France would continue to reduce the number of warheads on airplanes, bringing its total nuclear force to fewer than 300 warheads, half the number during the cold war.
The actual number of warheads France possesses is secret. This year, the Federation of American Scientists, which tracks nuclear arsenals, said France had 348 warheads — 288 on submarines, 50 on air-launched cruise missiles and 10 bombs.
Mr. Sarkozy also called for all nuclear powers to sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, as France had done, and he proposed talks on a treaty banning nuclear-armed short- and medium-range ground-to-ground missiles, a category that includes Scud-type missiles, and an idea likely to go nowhere in a world of Hezbollah, Hamas and the like. He also called for an immediate moratorium on the production of fissile material for nuclear weapons and a treaty banning its production, similar to an American proposal of 2006.
Mr. Sarkozy has been criticized, especially by Germany, for leaping ahead without consultation with European allies on major initiatives, like the “Mediterranean Union,” a looser grouping than the European Union and modified after Berlin’s protests. On Friday, he offered a “dialogue” on the role of French nuclear weapons in Europe’s collective defense.
“Regarding Europe, it is a fact that France’s nuclear forces by their very existence are a key element in its security,” he said. “Let’s together draw the logical conclusions: I propose to begin, with those of our European partners who wish to, an open dialogue on the role of deterrence and its contribution to our common security.”
Britain also has nuclear weapons, the main reason that Britain and France remain permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Neither country has been willing to cede its seat to the European Union. The United States provides most of Europe’s nuclear deterrence through NATO and its doctrine of collective defense.
At the same time, Mr. Sarkozy described the French “force de frappe” as a weapon of self-defense. He was vaguer about France’s national interests than his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who made a similar speech in January 2006, in which he appeared to broaden the list.
Then, Mr. Chirac delivered an unexpected and controversial warning to “rogue” states sponsoring terrorism by threatening to use nuclear weapons against any state that supported attacks on his country or considered using unconventional weapons.
“The leaders of states who use terrorist means against us, as well as those who would consider using, in one way or another, weapons of mass destruction, must understand that they would lay themselves open to a firm and adapted response on our part,” Mr. Chirac said. “This response could be a conventional one. It could also be of a different kind.”
Mr. Sarkozy, an aide told Le Monde, wanted to “return to the ‘fundamentals’ ” of deterrence.