France to Rejoin NATO as Full Member, after
PARIS- 3.12.09 -- President Charles de Gaulle infuriated the United States when
he suddenly pulled France out of NATO's military command in 1966, arguing he had to preserve French independence
in world affairs.
Forty-three years later, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced Wednesday, France has decided to return
as a full-fledged member of the 26-nation military pact, the North Atlantic Alliance, which came together under U.S. leadership
at the start of the Cold War in 1949 and has served as the basis for U.S.-European security relations since.
aside Gaullist dogma long cherished in France, Sarkozy declared that rejoining the U.S.-led integrated command in Brussels
will not diminish the independence of France's nuclear-equipped military and, on the contrary, will open the way for more
French influence in deciding what NATO's new missions should be after the Cold War.
"The time has come,"
he said in a speech to France's Strategic Research Foundation, adding, "Our strategy cannot remain stuck in the past
when the conditions of our security have changed radically."
The decision, widely debated even before it was formally
announced, marked another significant step in Sarkozy's effort to bring France and the United States closer together after
a period of estrangement and backbiting. Since taking over in May 2007, Sarkozy has repeatedly declared himself a friend of
Washington and made gestures to warm the chill that had settled over French-U.S. relations under Presidents George W. Bush
and Jacques Chirac, chiefly because of Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war and Bush's with-us-or-against-us
"We need a renewed trans-Atlantic partnership between an America that is open and a Europe that is being
strengthened," Sarkozy's defense minister, Hervé Morin, said in an address to the same conference.
said he would formally notify France's allies of its return to the NATO command during celebrations to mark the North
Atlantic Alliance's 60th anniversary, with President Obama in attendance, scheduled for April 3-4 in Strasbourg, France,
and Kehl, just across the border in Germany. At Sarkozy's insistence, according to reports in Paris, Obama has penciled
in a stop beforehand at the World War II Normandy landing beaches to dramatize the historic underpinnings of French-U.S. ties.
Gaulle's defiant gesture, which caught Washington unaware, came at a time when U.S.-European security revolved around
girding against a possible Soviet attack from the East. It meant in theory that the French military and its nuclear arsenal
would no longer take orders from the American general commanding NATO forces. In addition, de Gaulle ordered out thousands
of U.S. troops stationed on French soil and at NATO headquarters, then in a Paris suburb.
France never left the overarching
North Atlantic Alliance, however, and within a year the practical effect of withdrawing from the integrated command was also
watered down. A secret accord between U.S. and French officials, the Lemnitzer-Aillert Agreements, laid out in great detail
how French forces would dovetail back into NATO's command structure should East-West hostilities break out.
then, the threat of a Soviet attack has melted away and NATO has launched a long study about how it should redefine its mission
in the 21st century, including what has become a practice of military operations beyond the borders of member countries. Since
the 1990s, for instance, NATO forces have intervened in conflicts in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, none of which fit the
NATO mission as originally conceived.
Despite their absence from the integrated command, French forces, the largest
in Europe with 259,000 regulars and 419,000 reservists, have been major contributors to each of these interventions. More
than 3,000 French soldiers have been dispatched to Afghanistan as part of the International Security Assistance Force and,
since Sarkozy became president, they have expanded their role to include combat missions.
Sarkozy argued that, given
the level of French participation on the ground, it made no sense for France to continue boycotting the command structure
that runs such interventions.
"We send our soldiers onto the terrain but we don't participate in the committee
where their objectives are decided?" he said. "The time has come to end this situation. It is in the interest of
France and the interest of Europe."
In any case, he added, rejoining the integrated command still leaves France
free to refuse to participate in an operation that it judges unwise. For instance, Germany, a full NATO member, refused to
get involved in the Iraq war, he pointed out.
Sarkozy said France's return to the integrated command will not bring
a radical strategic change for France as a nuclear power because Paris will remain outside NATO's nuclear coordination.
As a result, he said, he will still be the only one with his finger on the button of French nuclear weapons.
prime minister Édouard Balladur recalled in a recent interview with Le Figaro newspaper that he began negotiations
on a return to the integrated command when he was prime minister as far back as two decades ago, under the Socialist president,
François Mitterrand. Similar negotiations were held under Chirac several years ago, Sarkozy said. But in both instances,
they foundered on the level of participation by French officers in NATO's key commands.
In the agreement shaping
up now, reports here said, French generals will be given the command of NATO's regional headquarters near Lisbon and the
Norfolk, Va.-based Allied Command Transformation study group drawing up plans for future NATO missions.
The return to
NATO's integrated command also will require France to slightly increase its financial contributions, estimated at about
$175 million a year, or 7.5 percent of the total. But that represents a small part of France's military budget, estimated
at $44 billion this year, and has not been a factor in the debate.
Sarkozy predicted that the country's return to
NATO command also will accelerate development of a European defense force, long a goal of French diplomacy.
he said, Britain and to some degree Germany and other countries were reluctant to cooperate with France on such a force
out of fear it would be interpreted as a split from NATO. As a result, the idea of a European defense force was hailed repeatedly
at European Union summit meetings but has produced little in the way of practical results.
Since Sarkozy's plans
became known in recent weeks, the president has found himself under attack from the main opposition group, the Socialist Party,
and from those attached most strongly to the Gaullist heritage within his own conservative coalition. But he said that France
over the years has quietly resumed cooperation with almost all facets of the NATO command and that his decision was a final
step recognizing the reality of a long process.
Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, who served with Sarkozy
under Chirac, nevertheless called the decision a blunder that would dilute the independence of French foreign policy. Ségolène
Royal, the Socialist former presidential candidate, said Sarkozy was identifying France too closely with the United States
just as the world was moving from U.S. domination.
In response, Prime Minister François Fillon said he would
put the government's foreign policy up for debate in the National Assembly on Tuesday. That will give the Socialists an
opportunity to vent their criticisms of the NATO move, observers noted, but will force Sarkozy's coalition majority to
swallow its reservations and vote with the government.