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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

French Politicians Unite To Support Conscription

Combined Reports

PARIS -- President Jacques Chirac's plan to slash the army and create all-professional forces stirred unease across the political spectrum Friday, with politicians of left and right mounting a rear guard action to save conscription.

Chirac met 500 officers at France's war college and urged them to give undivided support to the biggest military reform since the end of the Algerian war in 1962.

The planned changes, cutting the armed forces to 350,000 personnel from 500,000 and reducing the size of France's nuclear arsenal, would "give a new spur to Franco-German cooperation," he said -- a view endorsed by Chancellor Helmut Kohl in a statement issued in Bonn.

But French politicians from Communist Party boss Robert Hue to maverick rightist Philippe de Villiers came out in favor of maintaining France's system of universal military conscription, first introduced during the 1789 revolution.

Critics said the shift to an all-professional force would weaken a sense of national unity, hit jobs, undermine France's home defenses and make the armed forces suited only to missions abroad such as in Bosnia or the Gulf War.

In a television interview Thursday, Chirac said he wanted to cut the number of French regiments to 83 or 85 from 124 and move to an all-volunteer army capable of sending 50,000-60,000 troops abroad at short notice.

"Chirac abandons national defense," the Communist daily L'Humanite screamed in a banner headline. Yet an opinion poll this week showed that 72 percent of French people favor a shift to an all-professional force.

Opposition Socialist Party leader Lionel Jospin berated Chirac for failing to talk about French troops defending French territory.

Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, said Chirac had "signed the death warrant of our defense industries and our armies."

Defense Minister Charles Millon said cuts would not affect bases in former African colonies, or the number of troops in French territories from the Indian Ocean to the Caribbean.

Some troops would be withdrawn from Germany but France would maintain its commitment to the Eurocorps, grouping Belgian, French, German, Luxembourg and Spanish troops as the embryo of a future European army.

Chirac said he was leaving to national debate whether to replace army service, when it ended, with a compulsory civilian service for young men or a voluntary service open to both sexes.