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France aims to take its full place in NATO

MUNICH – President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and top NATO officials will begin a diplomatic effort this month to persuade lawmakers in Paris to accept Sarkozy's plans to return France to full membership in NATO military command structures in time for the alliance's summit meeting in April.

(PS. This article is machine-translated from Norwegian)

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the NATO secretary general, will address the foreign affairs and defense committee of the National Assembly on Thursday, and Sarkozy is due to give a major speech on NATO to legislators on Feb. 20.

In Washington and Brussels, the United States is finalizing details on which command posts France will be offered when and if Sarkozy wins parliamentary approval for a policy shift that prompted unexpected political opposition.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference, Sarkozy was uncharacteristically cautious about announcing when and how France would join.

"My conviction is that France should improve its links with NATO, by being an independent ally, a free partner of the United States," Sarkozy told the 350 delegates. “The alliance with the United States and the alliance with Europe do not call the independence of my country into question, it strengthens its independence. This is something I am going to explain to the French people. ”

Sarkozy has made better US relations one of the cornerstones of his foreign policy since being elected nearly two years ago.

That includes rejoining the NATO command structures that former President Charles de Gaulle withdrew from in 1966.

De Gaulle also expelled NATO headquarters from Paris and nearby Fontainebleau to protest what he saw as US dominance in Europe.

At the Munich conference, Sarkozy was joined by Joseph Biden Jr., the first American vice president to come to this annual event for world leaders, defense and security experts.

Biden said that President Barack Obama "underscored his strong support for France's full participation in NATO, should France wish it."

"We would expect France's new responsibilities to reflect the significance of its contributions throughout NATO's history and strengthen the European role within the alliance," Biden said.

Rejoining the command structure would give France considerable power to influence the strategic doctrine that NATO is set to consider after the April summit meeting. Paris, too, could increase European influence within the 26-member organization, which includes Canada.

Scheffer said it would be extremely important "for France to take its full place in NATO."

"I would like to see France getting a place in the command structure which respects and is in accordance with France's position in NATO's operations and missions, which is very strong," Scheffer said in an interview. "France would be adequately represented in the command structure."

But Sarkozy has yet to convince public opinion and French lawmakers, who want to know what France will get out of returning to NATO and what the move means for the future of security and defense in France and Europe.

France has long supported a European Union that would play a greater military and security role and act independently of NATO. But Sarkozy has made the improvement of European defense capabilities a precondition for joining NATO command structures.

Such aims, however, have been hampered by countries reluctant to spend more on military capabilities and pool resources so as to avoid duplication.

France has already been playing an increasingly important role within NATO.

It rejoined the military committee several years ago. French generals have commanded NATO missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan. The country also sent two generals to the Allied Command Transformation headquarters in Norfolk, Va., Which is in charge of revamping NATO to address new security issues.

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