France moves toward NATO return

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President Nicolas Sarkozy says the time was coming to explain the importance of Paris’s links with the United States.

MUNICH – President Nicolas Sarkozy took a new step Saturday toward France's full return to the NATO military alliance, while strengthening military cooperation with Germany.

In an effort to prepare for France's reintegration into NATO's military structures, Sarkozy said that the "time was coming" to explain to the French public the importance of Paris's links with the United States.

"The alliance with the United States and the alliance with Europe does not compromise the independence of my country," he said, at an international security conference in Munich, southern Germany.

However he did set one "condition" in that "France wants to renew its relationship with NATO while remaining an independent ally, a free partner of the United States."

Paris, he underlined, would retain its nuclear deterrent.

France is rumoured to be ready to announce its intention to return fully into NATO at its 60th anniversary summit in April, but it has made the move conditional on Europe's defence capacities being strengthened.

"You can be sure that by the month of April we will try to realise the great ambition for this family that we are part of," Sarkozy said. The summit will be held in the French city of Strasbourg and Kehl, in neighbouring Germany.

France was a founding member of NATO, but then-president Charles de Gaulle pulled out of the alliance's integrated military command in 1966, determined to keep French nuclear independence.

The split developed over many years, as successive French governments became increasingly dissatisfied with what they perceived as Anglo-American domination of the command structure and insufficient French influence.

US Vice President Joe Biden, who also took part in the conference here, said Saturday that Washington backs France's intention to return fully to the fold.

Indeed, the United States has agreed to allow French generals to be given command of two major NATO structures if Paris decides to reintegrate.

However the other allies must agree on the plan, which would see France take over NATO's Allied Command Transformation in Norfolk, Virginia, and a regional command headquarters in Lisbon.

France, which remains an important member of NATO and is a major contributor to its missions, has recently sought to ensure that Europe can stand alone militarily if it must.

In a sign that Europe's defence pole was being strengthened, Sarkozy welcomed the imminent deployment of German troops on French soil, describing the move as a "historic act".

France "would be happy to host on its territory" a German battalion for the first time since invading German forces were forced out at the end of World War II, he said in Munich.

French Defence Minister Herve Morin said it would involve some 600 soldiers and that they would be based at Illkirch, near Strasbourg in northeast France.

"It will have reconnaissance and infantry companies and have a headquarters, corresponding to a force of 600 to 700 troops," Morin told AFP on the sidelines of the conference.

The Franco-German brigade was set up in 1989 and currently has 2,300 French soldiers and 2,800 German forces stationed side-by-side in southwest Germany.

German troops occupied much of France during World War II, and the eastern Alsace-Lorraine region where Illkirch is located has a patchwork history of annexation and occupation under both countries.

[AFP / Expatica]

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