France re­joins NATO’s mil­i­tary com­mand

The Washington Times Weekly - - International Perspective - BY ANNE-LAURE BUF­FARD

PARIS French Pres­i­dent Ni­co­las Sarkozy’s par­lia­men­tary victory that will re­turn France to NATO’s in­te­grated mil­i­tary com­mand en­coun­tered fierce do­mes­tic op­po­si­tion, and an­a­lysts say it is un­likely to re­sult in a big­ger French con­tri­bu­tion to the Afghanistan war.

“Afghanistan will of course be a cen­tral is­sue when Pres­i­dent Obama comes to Europe in the beginning of April,” said Bruno Ter­trais, a re­search fel­low at the Foun­da­tion for Strate­gic Re­search, a Paris think tank. “Yet I don’t think it will be a test for France’s new com­mit­ment to NATO.”

France has about 3,000 sol­diers in Afghanistan — 700 more than a year ago — and has “no plans at all” to in­crease that de­ploy­ment, said Em­manuel Le­nain, a spokesman for the French Em­bassy in Wash­ing­ton. He added that there is “no link” be­tween French troop lev­els and the rein­te­gra­tion to NATO’s mil­i­tary com­mand.

Par­lia­ment made the de­ci­sion in a 329-238 vote on March 17, four decades af­ter Pres­i­dent Charles de Gaulle sought to un­der­line French in­de­pen­dence by with­draw­ing from NATO’s mil­i­tary com­mand while re­main­ing a po­lit­i­cal mem­ber of the al­liance.

Mr. Sarkozy, how­ever, sig­naled from the start of his pres­i­dency two years ago that he was ready to re­turn France to the al­liance’s com­mand struc­ture, in part to over­come the bit­ter­ness left by the U.S. in­va­sion of Iraq.

“A state alone, a soli­tary na­tion, is a na­tion without in­flu­ence, and if we want to count for some­thing we have to know how to bind our­selves to al­lies and friend­ship,” Mr. Sarkozy said at a re­cent de­fense sem­i­nar in Paris.

Mr. Sarkozy’s com­ments failed to con­vince staunch op­po­nents of NATO’s rein­te­gra­tion, on both sides of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum.

“No to France’s re­turn into NATO. Yes to a free France,” read signs in Parisian streets posted be­fore the par­lia­men­tary vote. The motto came from Ni­co­las Dupont-Aig­nan, a Gaullist mem­ber of the Na­tional As­sem­bly.

“Ni­co­las Sarkozy’s fu­ri­ous en­ergy to sub­or­di­nate our coun­try to the United States means he has given up France’s will­ing­ness and abil­ity to ex­er­cise self-determination on the in­ter­na­tional stage,” Mr. Dupont-Aig­nan said on his Web site.

Once a mem­ber of the cen­ter­right pres­i­den­tial party, the Union for a Pop­u­lar Move­ment (UMP), and now pres­i­dent of his own sovereignist group, Mr. Dupont-Aig­nan was one of sev­eral right­ist of­fi­cials — in­clud­ing two for­mer prime min­is­ters — ex­press­ing fierce op­po­si­tion to Mr. Sarkozy’s plan.

Do­minique de Villepin and Alain Juppe, for­mer UMP prime min­is­ters, pub­licly ex­pressed their con­cern about the de­ci­sion, which they said was a be­trayal of the Gaullist legacy.

Mr. de Villepin de­scribed the de­ci­sion as a se­ri­ous “diplo­matic mis­take.”

Il­lus­trat­ing the di­vide within the pres­i­den­tial ma­jor­ity, a dozen right-wing deputies boy­cotted the vote.

“The de­bate is im­pos­si­ble in the Par­lia­ment and is re­duced to al­most noth­ing within the ma­jor­ity,” Fran­cois Goulard, a mem­ber of the UMP who skipped the vote, told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “The French gov­ern­ment is twist­ing our arm on the is­sue.”

To de­ter right­ist deputies from vot­ing against the mea­sure, Prime Min­is­ter Fran­cois Fil­lon sug­gested that a neg­a­tive vote would threaten to bring down the gov­ern­ment. That ap­par­ently ac­counted for the rel­a­tively wide ma­jor­ity with which it passed.

As com­man­der in chief, Mr. Sarkozy did not need par­lia­men­tary ap­proval to re­join the NATO com­mand, but a leg­isla­tive vote on his for­eign pol­icy showed that French leaders took se­ri­ously the threat of a neg­a­tive out­come.

Left­ists op­posed the move.

“Noth­ing to­day jus­ti­fies re­turn­ing to [the] NATO mil­i­tary com­mand. There’s no hurry, no fun­da­men­tal need, ex­cept for this At­lanti­cism that’s be­com­ing an ide­ol­ogy,” said So­cial­ist leader Mar­tine Aubry.

Iron­i­cally, French pub­lic opin­ion seemed sup­port­ive of the change. An LH2 opin­ion poll con­ducted this month found that 52 per­cent re­gard France’s full re­turn to NATO as pos­i­tive, while 27 per­cent were op­posed.

“French peo­ple prob­a­bly find NATO more lik­able than 60 years ago,” said Mr. Goulard.

“Re­cent op­er­a­tions by the al­liance don’t bear the mark of the United States as much as they used to.”

Since the col­lapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has in­ter­vened in con­flicts in Bos­nia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, op­er­a­tions that ex­ceeded the al­liance mis­sion as first con­ceived in 1949.

De­spite their ab­sence from the in­te­grated com­mand, French forces, which are the largest in Europe, have been ma­jor con­trib­u­tors to each of th­ese in­ter­ven­tions. More than 4,000 French sol­diers are sta­tioned on NATO mis­sions world­wide.

Re­join­ing the com­mand will al­low French of­fi­cers to as­sume key lead­er­ship posts and iron­i­cally may re­duce pres­sure on France to send more troops to Afghanistan, said Mr. Ter­trais of the Foun­da­tion for Strate­gic Re­search.

“Both Amer­i­can and Euro­pean diplo­mats want to avoid the Afghanistan is­sue to pro­voke a cri­sis be­tween the al­lies at the very beginning of Barack Obama’s man­date,” he said. “Para­dox­i­cally, France’s full re­turn may pro­tect it from pres­sure be­cause [the re­turn] al­ready ap­pears as a good­will ges­ture.”

France has been nur­tur­ing the idea of a full re­turn to NATO for more than two decades. For­mer Prime Min­is­ter Edouard Bal­ladur be­gan ne­go­ti­a­tions in 1993 when a So­cial­ist, Fran­cois Mit­ter­rand, was pres­i­dent. Sim­i­lar ne­go­ti­a­tions were held un­der Mr. Mit­ter­rand’s suc­ces­sor, Jac­ques Chirac.

“On a strate­gic level, France’s full re­turn into NATO is much ado about noth­ing,” said Nicole Gne­sotto, an an­a­lyst on transAt­lantic strate­gic re­la­tions and a for­mer di­rec­tor of the Euro­pean Union’s Se­cu­rity In­sti­tute. “My vi­sion of it would be: no more in­flu­ence nor less in­de­pen­dence.”

Ms. Gne­sotto said the per­cep­tion of Franco-Amer­i­can re­la­tions had been dis­torted by the prism of the Iraq in­va­sion, which Mr. Chirac strongly op­posed. “In re­al­ity, it’s been 28 years that France and the U.S. are act­ing as part­ners on their strate­gic de­ci­sions,” she said.

AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES

France has de­ployed about 3,000 sol­diers in Afghanistan, 700 more than a year ago. The French con­tri­bu­tion to NATO’s In­ter­na­tional Se­cu­rity As­sis­tance Force (ISAF) is the four th largest af­ter those from the United States, Bri­tain and Canada.

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