France to return to NATO command
The move which will be debated in parliament next week is likely to see France return to the NATO military command and become a full partner of the United States and its other Atlantic allies.PARIS – President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Wednesday that France would return to the NATO military command and become a full partner of the United States and its other Atlantic allies.
Four decades after General Charles de Gaulle declared France's independence from the command structure, while remaining a political member of the alliance, Sarkozy said the time had come to once more play a leading role.
"The moment has come to put an end to this situation because it is in the interest of France and of Europe to do so," Sarkozy told an audience of military officers, officials and international defence experts in Paris.
Speaking as commander in chief, Sarkozy said France had been moving closer to playing a full role in NATO's missions and committees ever since De Gaulle's decision to withdraw from the command in 1966.
"In ending this long process, France will be stronger and more influential. Why? Because those who are absent are always in the wrong. Because France must be a joint leader rather than submit to others," he said.
"Because we must be there where decisions and norms are decided, rather than waiting to be told about them," he said. "Once we have returned, we will retake our proper place in all the major Allied commands."
Sarkozy said, however, France would keep its independent nuclear deterrent outside NATO, arguing that since the United States and Britain have done the same this did not represent a continued exclusion from the Alliance.
The president and his supporters insist the move will boost France's influence among the Western allies, and allow Paris to promote a common European identity without it being seen as a rival to the US alliance.
Critics counter that Paris will now lose face internationally and be seen as a subordinate to the United States.
On a day-to-day military level, not much will change. France has long played a major role in NATO operations, fielding troops under allied command in Bosnia, Kosovo and now notably in the dangerous Afghan campaign.
But De Gaulle's decision has a powerful symbolic significance for the French, who are traditionally wary of falling under the domination of Washington and value their country's independent foreign policy.
Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, this half-in half-out stance has for many observers become an anomaly, with France's close involvement in NATO missions in the Balkans drawing it closer into alliance decision making.
Sarkozy's supporters insist returning will not force France to take part in unpopular US-led missions, such as the war in Iraq.
Noting that Germany had been fully integrated in the alliance's military structure but had nevertheless joined France in opposing the Iraq invasion, Sarkozy said such fears were based on "lies and counter-factuals."
In practical terms, France's return will see French staff officers take charge of two NATO commands and the number of French personnel attached to allied headquarters increase from 100 to around 800.
There will be no immediate effect on the 3,300 troops already attached to NATO's campaign in Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, Sarkozy has faced criticism from those who feel France's influence will suffer in, for example, Africa and the Middle East, if Paris ends up being seen as the poodle of the Americans.
"Nothing today justifies returning to NATO military command," opposition Socialist leader Martine Aubry said, criticising Sarkozy's fondness for close ties with Washington.
"There's no hurry, no fundamental need, except for this Atlanticism that's becoming an ideology," she said.
Despite the fierce debate, the French public appears ready for the change. An IFOP opinion poll conducted last week of 957 French adults found 58 percent support for rejoining NATO, with 37 percent opposed.
The move will be debated in parliament next week, but the ruling majority is expected to rally reluctantly behind Sarkozy who will send a letter to the allies to announce France's return before the 3-4 April NATO summit.
AFP / Expatica