updated 7/24/2008 3:41:15 PM ET 2008-07-24T19:41:15

France's military will slash 54,000 service jobs and close dozens of air, army and other bases in an overhaul meant to slim down the defense sector at home but make it easier and faster to deploy troops abroad, the prime minister said Thursday.

With some 10,000 troops from Afghanistan to Lebanon, including under NATO and U.N. auspices, France is a major contributor to international peacekeeping and other operations.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon said the restructuring will save billions of euros and allow for a smaller, more agile military. Like other European countries, France is grappling with aging military equipment, budget constraints and threats such as terrorism, drug trafficking and Internet-based crime.

"It's our responsibility to make these choices," Fillon told reporters at a Paris news conference. "We have to have a military that's best suited to our needs, to the threats, and at the same time ... our public finances."

Sarkozy's vision for a leaner military
The overhaul grew out of a recent top-to-bottom review of defense posture of this nuclear-armed country. In unveiling the white paper last month, President Nicolas Sarkozy laid out his vision for a leaner, smarter and more high-tech 21st-century military. He also made the case for closer French cooperation with NATO.

The total French military force today, including gendarmes, is believed to include about 350,000 service members. Fillon did not say how the 54,000 service members would be removed from France's forces or what, if anything, would be done to help them find new jobs.

Fillon said that 83 sites are to be closed starting in 2009, slashing the cost of maintaining the small bases scattered throughout the country.

Most of the French military's budget — 60 percent — is spent on maintaining troops and sites, while 40 percent is used for operations, Fillon said.

The French military will concentrate most of its remaining troops at 85-90 beefed-up defense bases by 2014, Fillon said.

Fillon defended the site closures and troop downsizing, saying all the units slated for closure are "ones that are no longer adapted to today's threats."

"Everyone understands that we don't need as many ... tanks when we're not facing the threat of an invasion," he said. "We need more means of intelligence gathering, operative mobility, lighter and more reactive forces."

Under the plan, France aims to be able to deploy as many as 30,000 troops abroad at one time. France currently has more than 10,000 troops in peacekeeping operations in places such as Ivory Coast, Kosovo, Lebanon, Afghanistan and Chad.

Plan generating criticism
The restructuring plan garnered wide criticism even before it was officially announced.

Officials in towns slated to lose their sites have insisted the plan will be disastrous for local economies and have pledged to fight the closures.

Fillon said he understood people's fears and promised the equivalent of $503 million in aid to the most affected regions, many in the depressed northeast of the country. He also said measures would be taken to encourage investment in the hit regions.

A spokesman for the opposition Socialists called the plan "draconian" and said budgetary constraints — and not changing security needs — had motivated the restructuring.

Uncertainty still surrounds the fate of a joint German-French brigade formed in 1989 and made up of 2,500 troops from each country, which some fear could be scrapped in the defense overhaul.

On Wednesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appealed for its preservation, calling it "a nucleus of a European security and defense policy."

But Fillon gave her no guarantees, saying Thursday that the French government is "in reflection" about its future. Defense Minister Herve Morin said the brigade dates from an era when France-German reconciliation was paramount.

"We have largely passed this stage," he said.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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