Sarkozy marches France back into NATO command
PARIS – President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Wednesday that France would return to the NATO military command and seek a larger role as 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.
"A state alone, a solitary nation, is a nation without influence and if we want to count for something we have to know how to bind ourselves to allies and friendships," Sarkozy told a defence seminar in Paris.
"France wants peace, France wants freedom and France also knows who our friends are and who our enemies are. I’m not afraid to say it, our friends and allies are first and foremost the Western family," he said.
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.
Sarkozy said France’s independent nuclear deterrent would remain outside NATO control, but argued that since the United States and Britain have the same policy this does not represent a continued exclusion.
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 this 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.
The United States welcomed Sarkozy’s decision.
"We are delighted that after a 43 year absence France is back where it belongs, in the command structure of the alliance it helped found," Defence Department press secretary Geoff Morrell said in a statement.
"Although their troops have been bravely fighting alongside ours in Afghanistan, it is welcome news to have them fully re-integrated in all NATO military matters," he said.
NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer also hailed the move.
"France has always been an important ally within NATO. Its current contribution to operations and missions is crucial," he said.
"Its full participation in all the civil and military decision-making and planning processes cannot but strengthen the Alliance further, in my view."
Sarkozy’s critics have alleged that France will lose its ability to forge an independent course in relations with countries such as Russia or Middle East powers, and that it might be forced to take part in US military adventures.
Noting that Germany had been fully integrated in the alliance’s military structure but had nevertheless joined France in opposing the 2003 Iraq invasion, Sarkozy branded those spreading such fears dishonest.
"Lies, lies, untruths!" Sarkozy declared. "Yes, we’re allies of the United States. We’re friends, but friends who stand tall, independent friends and close partners."
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.
"Nothing today justifies returning to NATO military command. There’s no hurry, no fundamental need, except for this Atlanticism that’s becoming an ideology," opposition Socialist leader Martine Aubry 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 April 3-4 NATO summit.
AFP / Expatica