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Exhibition | Defence & security | Deterrents

Exhibition “France and Nuclear Deterrence – A Spirit of Resistance

​The exhibition “France and Nuclear Deterrence: a Spirit of Resistance” retraces the history of the French nuclear program, from its origins to the present. It revisits France’s singularity regarding nuclear deterrence, a founding heritage of General de Gaulle, which has not been questioned by his successors.

Published on 7 February 2020

​It may seem surprising to associate the two words “Resistance” and “Deterrence” at a time – World War II – when French nuclear deterrence did not yet exist. However, its roots date back to this conflict, as evidenced by the pioneering nature of the scientific work of Frédéric Joliot and his team at the Collège de France, as well as the key role played by atomic scientists from the France Libre (Free France) during the war. For the French Resistance, nuclear power was a major issue of sovereignty and a means for France to rebuild itself once liberated.

The exhibition focuses notably on the first Battle for Heavy Water (February / March 1940), during which France opposed to Nazi Germany in deepest secrecy (Jacques Allier mission). This resulted eventually in the dispatch to London of two members of the Joliot team (Hans Halban and Lew Kowarski), following a government decision dated 16 June 1940, just before Marshal Pétain came to power. Three other members of the French Resistance, specialized in nuclear science (Pierre Auger, Bertrand Goldschmidt and Jules Guéron), strengthened the cooperation in this area by joining forces with the Allies in Great Britain and then Canada, with the strong support of the scientific coordinator of the France Libre Louis Rapkine.

In the aftermath of WWII, the French atomic adventure continued with the creation in October 1945 by General de Gaulle of the French Atomic Energy Commission (CEA). French Resistance marked the beginning of the CEA, both in its spirit and in its functioning. The two first deputy heads of the Commissariat, Raoul Dautry and Pierre Guillaumat, demonstrated their determination to restore France's place in the world. They were joined by other former members of the French Resistance, all of whom shared the practice of secrecy, which was a determining factor in the launch of the French military nuclear program at the end of 1954.

As the founder and first President of the Fifth Republic, General de Gaulle officialised the military nuclear program launched under the Fourth Republic. For the leader of the France Libre, nuclear deterrence became a fundamental element of national sovereignty, an essential means of preserving France’s vital interests, but also of having a stronger influence in diplomatic relations.

Today, nuclear deterrence remains for France the ultimate guarantee of its security, protection and independence. France largely owes this continuity to the perpetuation of a “spirit of Resistance“, a spirit of defence, which expresses itself primarily – but not only – through nuclear deterrence and those who serve it on a daily basis. Putting this historical development back into perspective is essential to understanding the issues and resources devoted to nuclear deterrence.

This travelling exhibition was realized by the Military Applications Division of the French Atomic Energy and Alternative Energy Commission (CEA), in partnership with the French Historical Defence Service (SHD), the Institution of Communication and Audiovisual Production of Defence (ECPAD), the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS), the Fondation Charles de Gaulle, the Fondation de la France Libre, the Curie Museum, the French Diplomatic Archives, the Ecole Normale Supérieure ENS-Ulm (Interdisciplinary Center for Nuclear Studies and Strategy), and the magazine "L'Histoire". It was carried out as part of the conference “Resistance and Deterrence” which was held under the High Patronage of Mr. Emmanuel Macron, President of the French Republic, on 5 October 2017 at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. A collective book with the proceeding of the conference was published in 2018 by Odile Jacob.

Nearly 80 photographs and documents, coming from a dozen archival holdings (including the Historical Defence Service, the National Archives of France, the Curie Museum, the Historical Archives of the European Union, The National Archives of the United Kingdom), have been specially assembled for the exhibition. They highlight this enduring commitment to France’s independence and the protection of its vital interests.

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