France: Back in NATO after 43 years

President Nicolas Sarkozy announced that France would rejoin NATO's military command structure, ending the pullback Charles de Gaulle initiated in 1966.

France, NATO’s “prodigal son,” has returned to the alliance, said Marta Guzman in Spain’s El Mundo. France was a founding member of NATO back in 1949, at the end of World War II. But in 1966, Charles de Gaulle pulled the French military out of NATO’s integrated command structure because he felt that the alliance was too focused on U.S. strategic interests. France was still a NATO member for political purposes, but it didn’t attend military meetings, and French troops served only under their own commanders, not NATO officers. Last week, President Nicolas Sarkozy ended that distinction by announcing his country’s return to all NATO structures. Domestically, the change “drew harsh criticism” from both the Left and the Right. France’s opposition Socialists see it “as confirmation of a trend toward American-style conservatism,” while conservatives view it “as a betrayal of the spirit of de Gaulle” and fear “that it will mean a loss of independence from Washington.”

Giving up our grand exception is no small thing, said France’s Le Monde in an editorial. Independence in security matters has been “a pillar of French national identity” for decades. It made France the natural leader anytime Europe needed to stand up to American bullying. But Sarkozy made a persuasive case. Returning to NATO’s military structures, he said, “does not amount to bowing to Washington.” All NATO decisions are made by consensus, not by the U.S. president, and any ally “is free to refuse to participate” in any particular operation. In fact, France will have more influence over NATO if it works within the military command—and it will be able to make NATO a more European-oriented institution.

That influence is France’s due, said Jacques Guyon in France’s Charente Libre. Bit by bit over the past two decades, France has been becoming more active in NATO’s operations. We participated in NATO’s military committee during the Bosnian crisis, and we have troops in Bosnia to this day, as well as in Afghanistan. France is, in fact, NATO’s fourth-largest contributor of troops and money. At this point, the idea “that our country should retake its place at the decision-making table is no longer heretical.” It’s only logical.

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That’s why we shouldn’t read too much into this development, said Spain’s El Pais. France felt it had to end its NATO isolation this year partly for logistical reasons: It is co-hosting, with Germany, the celebrations for NATO’s 60th anniversary next month. Don’t think that France will suddenly become vastly more pro-American in all its policies. Returning to NATO is “the inevitable culmination of a process, not the beginning of a new era in trans-Atlantic defense relations.”

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