Sarkozy wins confidence vote on return to NATO command
Paris — President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday won a vote of confidence over his decision to bring France back into NATO’s military command, four decades after it pulled out in protest over US dominance.
The national assembly voted by 329 votes to 238 in favour of Sarkozy’s government.
Four former French prime ministers earlier came out against the move but Sarkozy’s large parliamentary majority always meant the challenge was unlikely to succeed.
"In 1966, in the midst of East-West tensions, our withdrawal from the organisation was a shock," Prime Minister Francois Fillon told the national assembly earlier in a pre-debate vote.
"But in 2009 our return is simply an adjustment which … causes no emotion on the international stage," he said, adding that France was an "ally but not a vassal" of the United States.
Sarkozy announced last week that France would return to the alliance’s command, reversing then president Charles de Gaulle’s decision to walk out in protest over perceived US domination of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation.
De Gaulle’s move forced the alliance to shift from its Paris headquarters and led to US troops leaving French territory.
The founding aim of NATO, whose members now include countries as far apart as Turkey, Poland and Canada, was to set up a counterweight to Soviet armies based in eastern Europe since the end of World War II.
The move to reintegrate France was widely viewed as one of Sarkozy’s most important foreign policy changes.
But it has drawn fire from nationalists and from some in his right-wing UMP party who see it as a shift towards a more US-friendly stance.
Opposition Socialist leader Martine Aubry said earlier Tuesday that "nothing today justifies us falling in behind the United States, renouncing our liberty and aligning ourselves with their proposals".
Lionel Jospin was one of four former prime ministers to condemn the decision, alongside fellow Socialist Laurent Fabius and the UMP’s Dominique de Villepin and Alain Juppe.
"We will lose the precious privilege of defining case by case the terms of engaging our troops," Jospin told reporters.
But Fillon insisted that France’s nuclear weapons would remain solely under French control and that the country would make its own mind up about where and when it sent its troops.
Sarkozy has insisted that France belongs to the "Western family" and that as a founding member of NATO its interests would be best served as a full member of the top echelon.
In a speech to a military academy last week, he argued that France’s position outside the command structure had made allies distrustful of its drive to strengthen European defence, and that they saw it as a ploy to weaken NATO.
France would be in a better position to defend European defence as a full player in NATO and would continue to assert its independence, he added.
Sarkozy’s party holds a majority of 317 seats in the 577-member National Assembly.
France’s return to the integrated command is expected to become official at the April 3 to 4 NATO summit in the eastern French city of Strasbourg and at Kehl across the border in Germany.
The decision will see French generals take charge of two NATO commands but it will have no significant impact on France’s military mission in Afghanistan, where it is the fourth largest troop contributor.