Groupe SNPE was created in 1971 by converting the French State's ‘gunpowder’ departments into a public limited company. Its core business is the chemistry of energetic materials, including propellants, explosives and pyrotechnic devices. France is one of the few countries mastering solid propulsion for strategic missiles and launch vehicles, a capacity based on an unrivalled culture of safety and the scientific capabilities consolidated at the Le Bouchet Research Centre. The company's balanced portfolio of civil/military business (cuts in military spending in the 1990s were offset by civil markets such as automotive safety and fine chemicals) was imperilled by the sudden explosion on 21 September 2001 of the AZF plant in Toulouse, and the ensuing ban on phosgene production. The future of the French strategic chemicals industry, essential for national independence and the European project, will depend on restructurings and consolidation within France and Europe. At this critical juncture in a long shared history, the strategic chemicals industry and national defence must continue to ‘sail in company’.