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22nd Oct 2021

Sarkozy announces France's return to NATO

French president Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday (11 March) announced the return of his country to the military structures of NATO, 43 years after general Charles de Gaulle left the alliance to mark Paris' independence of the US.

"The time has come to stop excluding ourselves. The absentees are always wrong," Mr Sarkozy said in a speech at the Ecole Militare in Paris.

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  • Nicolas Sarkozy wants to undo the 43-years old rift between Paris and NATO (Photo: European Parliament - Audiovisual Unit)

The president said he would formally notify France's allies of its return to the military structures during NATO's 60th anniversary summit on 2-4 April in Strasbourg/Kehl.

Apart from the two NATO military commands earmarked for Paris ahead of the announcement, French media reported that US president Barack Obama has also agreed to make a stop at the World War II Normandy landings beaches before the summit to underscore the history of the US-French alliance.

The breach with the 43-year old Gaullist tradition was highly contested by the Socialist opposition, as well as some circles within Mr Sarkozy's own centre-right party, the UMP.

Former premier Dominique de Villepin, a longterm Sarkozy rival, has criticised the decision as being a blunder that would dilute the independence of French foreign policy.

Socialist leader Martine Aubry spoke about "an Atlanticism that becomes an ideology," while centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou has called it an "amputation."

To raise the stakes within the UMP, which holds a large majority in both chambers of the French legislature, prime minister Francois Fillon has scheduled a confidence vote for next Tuesday (17 March) in connection with the return to NATO structures.

But it is seen as highly unlikely that even the most Gaullist of UMP members would vote against their own government and risk early elections over this issue.

France already an active NATO member

French defence minister Herve Morin underscored last week that the return will "change nothing, in concrete terms."

"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," he added.

Despite general de Gaulle's surprise withdrawal from the military structures, France never left the overarching North Atlantic Alliance, which also has a strong political component.

Within a year the practical effect of withdrawing from the integrated command was also watered down. A secret accord between US 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.

In recent times, French forces, the largest in Europe, with 259,000 regulars and 419,000 reservists, have been major contributors to NATO missions. More than 3,000 French soldiers have been dispatched to Afghanistan and, since Mr Sarkozy became president, have expanded their role to include combat missions.

"We send our soldiers onto the terrain but we don't participate in the committee where their objectives are decided?" he said on Wednesday. "The time has come to end this situation. It is in the interest of France and the interest of Europe."

Better EU-NATO co-ordination

France's return to the military structures will contribute to soothing EU-NATO relations, leaving the Cyprus-Turkey dispute as the only real problem for co-operation between the two organisations.

For a long time, Washington viewed France's strong push behind EU's own security and defence policy (ESDP) as an attempt to counter NATO's weight in Europe. At times, France had also discreetly thrown its weight behind Greece's support for the Cypriot cause in the dispute with Turkey, also to undermine NATO coherence, alliance sources told EUobserver.

Now, Mr Sarkozy predicted that the country's return to NATO command will also accelerate development of a European defence force, long a goal of French diplomacy.

Previously, he said, Britain and to some degree Germany and other countries were reluctant to co-operate 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 defence force was hailed repeatedly at European Union summit meetings, but has produced little in the way of practical results so far.

French parliament backs return to NATO

The French National Assembly on Tuesday backed France's return to NATO's military structures, despite claims from the opposition that this would reduce the country's independence and align it to the US.

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