NATO: End of the French exception, but at what cost?

8th March 2009, Comments 0 comments

Is France's imminent return to NATO command a small step to tidy up decision-making in the alliance, or the death knell for Paris' ability to act independently on the world stage?

PARIS - President Nicolas Sarkozy and supporters of the decision argue that it will boost France's influence among the Western allies.

Opponents, however, fear the move will be seen in world capitals as France falling into line behind the US superpower and will undercut the long-standing tradition of Paris forging its own policy.

Sarkozy is expected to announce France's intention to rejoin the NATO military command on Wednesday at a conference in Paris, and parliament is to vote on the plan on 17 March.

President Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO's command in 1966 in order to assert its ability to act without American control, but French troops have continued to take part in many of the Alliance's missions.

For Sarkozy, the rather simple choice today is whether France wants to be an "actor or co-scriptwriter" when NATO is taking its decisions, aides say.

"In concrete terms, it changes nothing," Defence Minister Herve Morin insisted Friday. "So let's stop suggesting that returning to NATO's integrated command structure threatens our independence.

"We are in the contradictory position of France taking part in all NATO missions since 1995, of commanding NATO missions, of joining 36 of 38 NATO committees and yet continuing to talk as if we were some kind of exception."

Sarkozy's opponents, however, argue the return will signal Paris' friends and enemies, clients and rivals, in Asia, Africa and the Middle East that France is no longer in control of its own foreign and military policy.

Some experts agree that there is something to this view, even if it is based on an exagerrated idea of Paris' true margin of manoeuvre.

"Outside the integrated structure, France maintained the image of having a small amount of autonomy, which was very useful on a diplomatic level, even if it was a fiction," said foreign policy expert Jean-Pierre Maulny.

France's reputation for standing slightly apart from Washington was enhanced by its opposition to US plans in the build-up to the 2003 Iraq war, which was strongly opposed by Sarkozy's predecessor Jacques Chirac.

That stance was appreciated by many states in the Arab and Muslim world, argued Zyed Krichen, a writer with the Tunisian weekly Realites, who warned: "NATO is seen as the armed wing of United States' policy."

"French reintegration might be understood as a break with the past and a realignment alongside America," he said.

Perhaps with his own reasons for not wanting to see greater unity among Western powers, Russia's ambassador to NATO Dmitry Rogozin, said France's current role is part of its "national wealth".

"No one can predict what will become of her after reintegration," he warned.

Since the end of the Cold War in 1989 France has taken part in NATO's peace missions in Bosnia and Kosovo and, while it sat out the invasion and occupation of Iraq, it now has more than 3,000 troops in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, France has been slowly disengaging from its role in its former African colonies and toughening its stance in the Middle East, where it is building a new naval base in Abu Dhabi a short flight from US foe Iran.

Sarkozy has named a new special envoy to Pakistan and Afghanistan, lawmaker Pierre Lellouche, who is considered a strong supporter of close US ties and was a rare French supporter of the Iraq invasion.

After France's return to the military command, its staff officers seconded to the Alliance will have 26 generals' stars between them, the same as Britain or Germany, and the number of troops taking part will jump from 110 to 800.

So, in all likelihood, when US President Barack Obama meets Sarkozy on 3 April at the Alliance summit in Strasbourg, it will be as a fellow NATO leader.

Philippe Rater / AFP / Expatica

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