PARIS – François Fillon, a former prime minister, said July 13 he would commit France to spending two percent of its gross domestic product on defense and also retain the airborne and submarine-launched nuclear weapons if he won the presidential election next year.

Fillon, one of the candidates in the primaries of the conservative party Les Républicains, said the two percent figure "is important."

"That is a target I would pursue," he told the European-American Press Club. "And equally, I would maintain the two components for nuclear deterrence."

French defense spending has slipped to around 1.5 percent, below the two percent target set by NATO, as the national economy struggles to grow.

Fillon said he would pursue work on the next generation of nuclear missile submarines to replace the present four-strong fleet "in the medium term."

International tension would not allow France "to lower its guard on the nuclear deterrent front," he said, adding that Russia is re-arming, building nuclear subs, and installing anti-ballistic missile defense capabilities around Moscow.

It was a major mistake for NATO to extend its reach so close to Russia, and it was important for Paris and Moscow to pursue a dialog as Russia remains a European country, he said.

Fillon, prime minister from May 2007 to May 2012, is one of the candidates for the primaries to be held in November, which will decide which candidate to stand in the presidential election in May.

There is a consensus among Les Republicains candidates for the primaries and the Socialist party on maintaining the two nuclear forces, which offer credibility and flexibility of response, said Jean-Pierre Maulny, deputy director of the think tank Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques.

There was more debate of canceling one of the nuclear weapons in the previous presidential campaign. The arguments this time around are more about whether France should be "for or against" an atomic response, Maulny said.

France should persuade Germany to set up a European army, according to Fillon. Berlin could not rely wholly on NATO, as the alliance was unable to meet the threat from the Islamic State, he argued.

European strategy extends beyond institutional links to "sharing of the operational burden" in accordance with the Lancaster House treaty on military cooperation that France and Britain agreed on, Fillon said.

That 2010 pact between London and Paris "must be maintained at any cost," he said. "The only credible defense" is that Anglo-French agreement.

A July 13 joint statement from the lower and upper houses of the British and French parliaments said Anglo-French defense cooperation was "more necessary than ever."

British members of parliament and the House of Lords met with members of the French National Assembly and Senate for a twice-yearly meeting at the French Senate on July 12.

"There is a strong political signal of the solidity of Franco-British bilateral defence relations," the joint statement said. "The meeting reaffirmed that even though the UK had decided to leave the EU, the Lancaster House treaties are still essential to the security of both nations."

French Chief of Staff Army Gen. Pierre de Villiers and the Direction Générale de l'Armement procurement office also took part in the discussions, which will continue to be held regularly, the statement said.

Fillon said he told French President François Hollande that rather than launch French airstrikes against Syria, the leader should sit down with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin and German leader Angela Merkel and agree on a "medium-term strategy" on how to deal with Syria's Bashar Al-Assad.

Hollande ordered French airstrikes in retaliation for the Nov. 13, 2015, terror attacks in Paris, for which the Islamic State claimed responsibility. The Syria crisis has since deepened.

There may be some 60 countries in the anti-Syria coalition but as long as Russia and Iran were excluded, there was little chance of success, Fillon argued. The latter is considered essential as Teheran is the regional power.

Putin is "very difficult" to deal with but once he reaches an agreement, he keeps it, according to Fillon. "I have never seen him break his word."

Fillon was prime minister under then-president Nicolas Sarkozy, when Putin was his Russian counterpart.

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