Smoke but no fire in French decision to rejoin NATO

Socialist and Communist senators fumed, and former top-level officials warned of disaster, but there was never any doubt that President Nicolas Sarkozy would get his NATO wish.

The debate was a fine example of shadow boxing. French Prime Minister François Fillon explained at length that it was merely an “adjustment.”

“France would be an ally to the United States,” he said, “but not a vassal.”

That rather defensive qualification underlined the fears of the French opponents of NATO reunification.

Former Prime Minister and senior Socialist Laurent Fabius, who said that the decision meant that “France would have less influence,” congratulated Fillon on “speaking for half an hour without evoking the major contradictions behind the decision.”

But the Socialists were in no position to chastise the government for rejoining NATO because it was their party in 1966 that opposed General de Gaulle for surrendering its membership in the Cold War military organization.

The real opposition (and the ultimate reason for the vote of confidence) was comprised of the forty or more reluctant lawmakers within the government’s own ranks.

Directly behind them loomed the eloquent silence of two former conservative presidents, Valerie Giscard D’Estaing and Jacques Chirac, a picture that told its own story.

Former Prime Minster Dominique de Villepin, who was once a presidential hopeful alongside Sarkozy, spoke against NATO reunification, calling it “a serious political error.” He then invoked the wrath of the French president by arguing that NATO membership would have compelled France to fight in the hugely unpopular Iraq War.

Sarkozy shot back that “the Iraq War had nothing to do with NATO membership – the proof being that Germany took its decision [to oppose the war] before France even had.”

De Villepin could be easily dismissed as an enemy of President Sarkozy with a political axe to grind. But that cannot be said of former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, who advised caution on proceeding with the plan.

“I think that it would be preferable to wait until next year when NATO will outline its strategic concept and its area of operation before finally reintegrating.” Juppe then said he would welcome a “thorough debate” on the issue.

All are concerned that France will lose that degree of independence because of the overpowering influence of the United States in NATO and that this, in turn, will damage relations with third world countries at the same time that rising powers – notably Russia, Brazil, India and China – are beginning to wake from a long hibernation.

NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer did little to help the French government’s cause during a recent interview on French television. In response to the question, “What is NATO’s formal strategy,” he replied, “I don’t know yet, we have not decided.”

Meanwhile, former Socialist Minister Jean-Louis Bianco made the point that “NATO is a unique alliance in that it has survived 20 years after its purpose no longer existed.”

As a way of helping undecided government officials to vote in favor of a NATO reunion, both the Minister of Defence, Hervé Morin, and the Minster for Foreign Affairs, Bernard Kouchner, gave interviews that helped to clarify French policy in NATO. Together, they illustrate President Sarkozy’s double-headed approach to his relations with NATO and the United States. For the war in Afghanistan, support for the United States is clear and unequivocal.

Although France participates in a number of NATO missions, “We have no posts of military responsibility [so] we have no say when the allies define the objectives and military means of operations we participate in,” Sarkozy said in an address to the Foundation for Strategic Research at the Ecole Militaire in Paris.

In other words, France simply wants to have a say in the military operations that its soldiers participate in.

Yet France wants definite limits placed on the US-led organisation. Morin said France believes that NATO should remain “first a collective security pact,” but expressed reservations about the organisation snowballing into a worldwide alliance.

The renovation of the strategic concept, the renovation of the alliance’s missions, must not lead, in our view, to a NATO that would become a ‘global NATO.”

France wants to see an end to the idea of NATO as a rival to the United Nations. This is significant as one of the important NATO posts that will be given to a French general is planning the future strategy of the alliance.

At the same time, Bernard Kouchner called for Russia to be included in European defence planning. He described the move back into NATO as “putting more of France into Europe and thus more of Europe into the Atlantic alliance…”

At the recent meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Kouchner was instrumental in convincing wary former Soviet satellite countries of reopening talks between Russia and NATO.

Condoleezza Rice once told a French Minister “NATO is the tool of military influence over the European Union and we will not allow that situation to change.” The truth is, however, that Sarkozy thinks that the time will soon come, if it has not already, when America will have to change. In fundamental ways, Sarkozy is showing his agreement with Vladimir Putin’s then controversial speech at the Munich Conference on Security policy in 2007 that, “the United States is over-stretched militarily, politically and economically.”

Clearly, the French president thinks he has chosen a historic turning point to strike a favourable bargain with the Americans – greater co-operation in exchange for more liberty of action for Europe and an end to the obstruction of French political and commercial initiatives. Sarkozy learned an important political lesson a few years ago when he was criticised for strengthening relations with the Bush administration at a time when the Iraq war was looking disastrous. Sarkozy recalculated that the best time to come to the NATO membership table was when the United States was experiencing its greatest problems. That time, it appears, has arrived.

Facts about France and NATO

General de Gaulle never actually left the NATO alliance in 1966. He withdrew from the NATO military committees. He had already given warning of his intentions by withdrawing French Naval Units two years earlier and in frank talks with the United States.
He strongly opposed the Vietnam War, at first in private, and then again later during his now famous Phnom Penh speech in 1966 in which he predicted the defeat of American forces.

De Gaulle’s reasons for breaking with NATO were more than just a question of French pride and independence. He strongly believed in a Europe that spanned “from the Urals to the Atlantic.” Furthermore, he did not believe the United States would engage its nuclear forces to protect Europe, thus any war with the Soviet Union, he believed, would come down to conventional war in France and Germany.

By 1966, France had its own independent nuclear deterrent – the only genuinely independent nuclear force in Europe outside of the Soviet Union, since the use of British nuclear weapons is ultimately subject to a US veto.

He blamed NATO and US influence for the disloyalty of French Generals in the Putsch in Algeria in 1961.

The real shock to French-American relations came not from leaving NATO committees but from the General’s expulsion of 100,000 US military personnel from French soil, which de Gaulle felt was incompatible with French national independence. At the time of the break, NATO HQ had been in Fontainebleau, near Paris. It was obliged to move to Brussels.

Presently, and without formal reunification, France is the fourth biggest contributor to NATO financially and militarily. Thus, the present reintegration is the end of a long reconciliation that has been continuing for almost half a century.

Robert Harneis for RT