France abandons its 'Maginot line' to rejoin Nato

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The Independent Online

France's semi-detached relationship with Nato is to die the death of other, once-cherished "French exceptions", from yellow headlights to yellow cigarettes.

After months of hints, promises and background negotiations, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced yesterday that Paris hoped to rejoin the integrated military command of the Atlantic alliance next year - ending a 43 years old self-imposed diplomatic stand-off with Washington.

"The time has come for France to stop excluding itself (from Nato)," President Sarkozy told a high-level defence conference in Paris. To continue the existing policy would, he said, amount to a "21st century Maginot line", which ignored the "real threats to the freedom and independence of France and Europe in the modern world."

President Charles de Gaulle's decision in 1966 to walk out of the unified, Nato military command – while remaining a member of the alliance itself - was one of the defining moments of French post-war history. The decision established a French tradition of diplomatic and military independence from Washington which continued up to the Iraq invasion of March 2003.

President Sarkozy's much anticipated decision to rejoin all the military structures of Nato, putting some French forces under the orders of the alliance's American supreme commander, has angered French politicians of both left and right. Although they accept that political circumstances have changed, they fear that unqualified membership of Nato will destroy France's influence as an independent voice in global affairs.

President Sarkozy said yesterday that the opposite was true. France's "incapacity to acknowlege openly our position in the Alliance throws suspicion on our intentions..."

"Rapprochement with Nato will strengthen our national independence. Our proclaimed, but incomplete, distancing of ourselves from Nato damages our independence".

M. Sarkozy insisted, however, that France's nuclear deterrent, and the deployment of troops overseas, would remain under national control.

As President Sarkozy pointed out yesterday, there has been a growing post-Cold War gap between French rhetoric about Nato and the reality. France has already re-claimed a seat on the Nato mililtary committee. It is one of the five largest contributors to Nato military operations and the fourth largest contributor to the Nato operational budget.

Operationally, therefore, President Sarkozy's decision may not change much. Symbolically, it is another step in M. Sarkozy's crusade to confront national myths and slaughter French political holy cows.

There are conflicting opinions on what the decision will mean for long-standing efforts by French governments to promote a European Union defence policy. M. Sarkozy argued yesterday that it will be easier for such a policy to succeed, once Paris is no longer suspected of trying to undermine Nato. Others say that the French decision amounts to an admission that EU defence policy is going nowhere.

Originally, Paris demanded official US blessing for an EU defence policy as part of its dowry for fully rejoining Nato. This condition has quietly been dropped. French officers will, however, be given two senior Nato posts: the command of a long-distance planning unit in Norfolk, Virginia, and the regional command in Lisbon which controls the rapid response force.

The French national assembly will debate the president's foreign policy, including the Nato application, next week. If his prime minister, Francois Fillon, wins a confidence vote, as expected, President Sarkozy will formally apply for military membership before the summit in Strasbourg and Kehl on April 3-4 which will celebrate the alliance's 60th anniversary.