History of Nuclear Weapons in France

Axel Geller
March 24, 2018

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2018

Background Information

Fig. 1: Vive le Roi. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

It is very well known that nuclear weapons pose a massive threat to humanity in general. There is evidence that these weapons are both deadly in the short term, as well as in the long term through radiation and the different effects that the exposure to this type of radiation cause on humans. However, many different powerful nations have massive inventories of these weapons. France, for example, owns an inventory of approximately 300 strategic nuclear weapons, all of which seem to be operational. This makes France the third largest nuclear weapon owner in the world, only behind the US and the Russian Federation. Even though France has cut its nuclear weapons arsenal to nearly half from 1992, it refuses to give them up completely, and is even developing a new, more complex technology to improve some of its weapons. [1] Fig. 1 shows the situation in satire. Now, when and why did all of this start?


The bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were not only devastating for Japan, but they also set a precedent for all of the other powerful nations in the world. The US was showcasing all its power, and countries like France did not want to feel inferior. Conversely, the by then President, Charles de Gaulle, secretly created the French Atomic Energy Commission, abbreviated CEA. For many years, this Commission dedicated itself to developing the first nuclear weapon in France. This, according to De Gaulle, would help France re-position itself as one of the most important and strongest nations in the world. After they completed the development of their first ever nuclear weapons, the French decided to use the Sahara and the French Polynesia as the locations for atmospheric testing. The first ever testing, nicknamed Gerboise bleue (which translates into blue rat), was in 1960 in Algeria. Many argue that not all the safety protocols were taken care of, and even if France has denied it thoroughly, eyewitnesses argue that many locals experienced dangers of the waste of those tests because the French did not follow all of the safety protocols. [2]

Safety protocols involve the control of the release of radioactive materials. Nuclear disasters such as Chernobyl or, most recently, Fukushima, were rather unfortunate events, yet those who accuse France of not having taken safety precautions claim that, naturally, this could have been avoided considering France controlled its own nuclear weapon testing in Algeria and should have been more careful.

France has proved to be very stubborn with the issue of nuclear weapons in another aspect: it decided not to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) - until 1992, when it finally signed the Treaty and started to decrease production. When France originally refused to sign the Treaty, it claimed that this was in conflict with its own plans for development; thankfully, this position shifted eventually.

Analyzing the Future

Today, after the signing of the NPT in 1992, which was followed by the reduction, although yet not complete, elimination of its nuclear weapons, and the ending to the state of emergency in 2017, France stands in a relatively peaceful position. However, with the constant terrorist attacks by ISIS, and the ongoing danger of a new strike by these radicalized groups, France has enough firepower to cause a great amount of damage on whoever poses a major threat on its national security. Hopefully, none of this will be necessary, and all the knowledge on nuclear weapons can be translated on to the development of a new technology that will promote productivity, but not threaten with destruction.

© Axel Geller. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. S. Norris and H. M. Kristensen, "Global Nuclear Weapons Inventories," Bull. Atom. Sci. 66, 77 (2010).

[2] Bruno Barrillot, "French Nuclear Tests in the Sahara," Science for Democratic Action, April 2008