Return to NATO worries French

President Sarkozy’s decision to bring France fully back into NATO is making waves in French politics.

The leading opposition Socialist party has called for a debate on the subject in the National Assembly. François Bayrou, the key centrist candidate in the 2007 presidential elections and leader of the new Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem) party, said:

“It is not conceivable for a major power like ours to enter the integrated command structure and then leave again, every time the government changes, this decision should only be taken through a vote by referendum of the French people.”

In 1966 General de Gaulle withdrew from the integrated command structure of NATO. His motive was that the military alliance set up in 1949 to defend the Western Europe from the threat of a Soviet attack did not take into account French concerns. The Americans retained control of the key decision as to whether nuclear weapons could be used. The General feared that in the event of an attack the Americans would not risk nuclear war to keep the Soviets out of France. He also argued that no European defence organisation was possible as long as NATO existed.

In 1996, under President Chirac, France entered negotiations to return to the integrated command but insisted on a say in the alliance policy and certain command positions previously reserved for American generals. His proposition was refused by the then U.S. administration and the negotiations were dropped. It seems that by drawing closer to the Americans especially by violently opposing Iran’s nuclear programme and increasing the French contribution to the war in Afghanistan, Sarkozy has succeeded with the Americans where his predecessor failed. He has particularly asked for a greater Europeanisation of NATO policy. However, there are voices even within the ranks of his own UMP majority party that question the decision. UMP leader in the French National Assembly Jean-François Copé commenting on the Socialist request for a debate with a vote said “I am not against a debate, but not necessarily with a vote”. He admitted that there were “worries and hesitations on the subject” in the UMP. There is to be a special meeting of a group of UMP members to discuss the question.

French Deputies have already arranged to question Defence Minister Hervé Morin and Foreign Minster Bernard Kouchner. Some members are calling for Dominique de Villepin, President Chirac’s last Prime Minister and fierce political rival to President Sarkozy, to be heard as well. He is strongly opposed to France returning to the NATO military committee. Speaking on Monday he said that joining the NATO committee would mean that France would find itself “shrunk diplomatically”. He added that “My position is well known. I am against the return to the integrated command structure.” Speaking on television he questioned “The southern hemisphere is getting stronger. In a world that is radically changing, is this really the moment to give the impression of freezing ourselves into a Western European family. I think we ought to be open to the world and I believe that the positioning of France, which is one of independence, is vital to stability in the world.” He concluded “If tomorrow we are fully integrated into NATO, would we be able to maintain the same option that we took over the war in Iraq? My answer is no”.

In 2003 France joined Germany and Russia in opposing the invasion of Iraq. Dominique de Villepin, then French Foreign Minister, made a notable speech opposing the invasion in the United Nations Security Council.

The decision to bring France fully back into the alliance is due to be formally announced at the special 60th anniversary conference to held in Strasbourg and Baden-Baden from April 3 – 5. It will be Barack Obama’s first visit to Europe as U.S. President.

Robert Harneis for RT