In a speech this week, President Sarkozy announced his intention to reintegrate France into NATO's military structure. This reverses more than 40 years of French policy, since President de Gaulle expelled NATO forces from France in 1966.
France's nuclear forces will remain outside NATO structures, but for many, many years NATO and France have coordinated target planning, so this decision will have little or no operational effect.
Under the French constitution Sarkozy does not need the approval of the National Assembly to reintegrate with NATO. he has, however, asked the Prime Minister to hold a debate and vote on March 17. It is likely that the measure will pass, but this is no foregone conclusion, and the debate is likely to prove stormy.
The Socialists, led by Segolene Royal, oppose the move (as they opposed the original withdrawal from the military structure). Royal has described NATO as the 'armed wing of the West' and is overtly hostile to the Alliance. In response to Sarkozy's speech another Socialist leader, Lionel Jospin, wrote in the Nouvel Observateur magazine that:
In an uncertain world, France must retain its ability to freely assess for itself international realities and then play its full role, without having to censor itself in the name of transatlantic solidarity.
But the opposition is not only on the left. Dominique de Villepin, President Chirac's foreign minister at the time of the invasion of Iraq, told Canal+ TV that:
The independent positioning of France is essential for the global balance of power. If tomorrow, we integrated into NATO, would we, could we, maintain the position that we have done on Iraq?
That said, since France has been ever-present in NATO missions in the former Yugoslavia, and lately in Afghanistan, the measure will not represent a major change. France has been offered two major NATO commands (one the Allied Command Transformation based in Norfolk, Virginia). It was the refusal of the US to countenance such an offer that caused the failure of President Chirac's bid for reintegration in 1996, something that President Sarkozy mentioned (a little ungraciously) this week.
France will now be in a much better position to push for the negotiation of a new Strategic Concept by NATO, something it has agreed with Germany to do at the April Summit. The French government also hopes that this move will smooth the way to broaden and deepen European defence cooperation within the EU, in partnership with NATO. France has often been seen to promote European defence initiatives as a way of weakening NATO, and they hope this will no longer be the case. That remains to be seen.
One thing is surely true. The Eastern Europeans who see NATO primarily, indeed in some cases almost exclusively, as a defensive organisations aimed against Russia have lost ground. France will support an expeditionary Alliance, and will try to position NATO in a more cooperative relationship with Russia.
France was never as divorced from NATO as its public image suggested. But even so this is a major development. NATO Monitor will follow next week's National Assembly debate with interest.