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15th Apr 2024

French parliament backs return to NATO

  • France has been out of the organisation's military command for more than four decades (Photo: 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 with the US.

The deputies supported the move by 329 to 238 votes. The parliamentary vote was not obligatory and was scheduled in order to offer the opposition a chance to express their opinion due to the sensitivity of the issue in the country.

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But French President Nicolas Sarkozy had already hinted on several occasions that Paris was to make a complete return to NATO and confirmed the come-back last week.

With the large majority of Mr Sarkozy's conservative UMP party in the assembly, it was virtually guaranteed that the outcome would be affirmative, especially after Prime Minister Francois Fillon transformed the vote into a confidence motion on the government.

"Our nation doesn't take orders from anyone," Mr Fillon told the house in defence of the move.

"France will remain France, with its demand for truth and its demand for grandeur," he added.

Mr Fillon also confirmed that in exchange for returning to NATO's military structures, Paris would "doubtless" be given a key command in Norfolk, Virginia.

"We want to take our place where the future of NATO is discussed," he said.

France – one of NATO's founding members in 1949 – has been out of the organisation's military command for more than four decades.

In March 1966, in the middle of the Cold War, then-president Charles de Gaulle withdrew French forces in a bid to assert France's diplomatic and military autonomy and to protest against what he saw as US dominance emerging within the organisation.

But the country never left the overarching North Atlantic Alliance, which also has a strong political component. French forces have consistently been among the top five contributors to NATO operations – such as the presence in Afghanistan, where it currently has some 3,000 troops, and pays around 12 percent of the NATO budget, or around €2 billion per year.

"We send our soldiers onto the terrain but we don't participate in the committee where their objectives are decided?" Mr Sarkozy said last week.

"The time has come to end this situation. It is in the interest of France and the interest of Europe," he added.

French independence at stake, opposition says

The move has faced strong criticism, however, both from the opposition and from within the UMP party, with, notably, former premier Dominique de Villepin saying the decision would harm the independence of French foreign policy.

Another former prime minister, Laurent Fabius of the Socialist Party, said that by fully rejoining NATO, France would be "trivialised" and "aligned to the decisions of the United States."

"Our independence is at stake," he said.

For his part, Francois Bayrou, leader of the centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem) warned that the move would bring "very heavy consequences."

"I believe that France is abandoning something infinitely precious here, which was the sign of its independence. In exchange for what? Nothing," he added.

Prime minister Fillon defended the government's position, stressing that France would be "an ally, but not a vassal" and "loyal, but not dominated" by the US.

The French decision is to be formalised during NATO's 60th anniversary summit from 2-4 April in Strasbourg and Kehl, when the commands attributed to France are to be announced as well, according to defence minister Herve Morin.

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