France Considers Rejoining NATO's Military Wing

More than four decades after quitting NATO's military wing, France may be considering rejoining.  Critics say the move is largely symbolic, since Paris is already an active member in the transatlantic alliance.  But Lisa Bryant reports from Paris the move would reflect a larger foreign policy shift underway under French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Chances France might rejoin NATO's military command were raised earlier this month by French Defense Secretary Herve Morin. 

In a speech in Toulouse, Morin said Paris does not reap the full benefits of NATO, despite being one of the organization's largest contributors.  Europe's military strategy cannot advance, he said, if Paris does not clarify its position within NATO.

Today, some analysts believe that chances of Paris rejoining NATO's military wing are better than they have been for years.  Christopher Chivvis is a transatlantic fellow at the French Institute of International Relations, in Paris.

"I think there is a real possibility.  It is not something that is going to happen overnight," Chivvis said. "But I think there is a real possibility that this could happen over the course of the next few years."

France pulled out of NATO's military wing in 1966, irked by what it saw as Washington's dominating role in the Brussels-based institution.  It crafted an independent military course, buttressed by a nuclear deterrence program.

But France was never out of the alliance.  It remained a key political player and active militarily.  Several thousand French troops are stationed in Kabul and Kosovo, for example.

So Chivvis, for one, believes the benefits of France rejoining the military component will be largely symbolic.

"It would not change NATO's capabilities to undertake different kinds of military missions," Chivvis said. "What it would do, however, is - and this is the important point - on a political level make it clear that France remains committed to NATO as a military alliance.  As more than just a political alliance.  And that is what I think the real significance is."

But Leo Michel, an analyst at the National Defense University, in Washington DC, believes French military membership will make a difference.

"If France wants to have a greater say in the strategic direction of the alliance, one way to do so is to have a military presence at all levels where it can insert its voice," Michel said. "It is not credible to sit back and criticize the alliance for being too dominated by Americans when you, as a country, are playing with one hand tied behind your back."

Announcements of France's rejoining are not new.  They were made by former French president, Jacques Chirac, but never realized.  He later rejected a role for NATO in Iraq and Lebanon and championed an independent European defense policy - denying criticism it would undermine the Atlantic alliance.

Defense analyst at the Center for European Reform in London, Tomas Valasek, says under Chirac, transatlantic ties were at a low point during the U.S.-led war on Iraq, which was sharply criticized by the French.

"Chirac pretty systematically sought to distance France from NATO and France from the United States," Valasek said. "He viewed himself as an inheritor of the de Gaulle tradition - and it was General de Gaulle who took France out of NATO's military structures.  Chirac also - particularly after the Iraq war - has clearly sought to position France as an alternative source of power to the United States.  And because NATO was viewed as being dominated by the United States, [French] foreign and defense ministers consistently tried to weaken NATO and undermine any new idea, any new initiative within the alliance.  There was no hope of French-NATO rapprochement under Chirac."

But France's current leader, Nicolas Sarkozy, casts himself as a break from that Gaullist past.  He has vowed to alter traditional French-African relations and chilled ties with Russia.  Unlike previous French presidents, he is openly pro-Israel.  In August, he sent his foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, on a three-day visit to Iraq - the first by a top French envoy in years.

And while Chirac suggested France could live with a nuclear Iran, Sarkozy backs the Bush administration's push for toughened sanctions against Tehran.  Foreign Minister Kouchner sparked furor last week by warning to be prepared for war if Iran does not change its policies.

French analyst Dominique Moisi believes France's NATO policy may change as well.

"France has definitely come closer to the United States since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president," Moisi said. "There is a new tone, there is a new style, there is a return of confidence.  And of course, that does translate itself in the relationship between France and NATO."

But Moisi believes policies that appear too pro-American do not sell well in France.  And he says full NATO membership may not either.


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