France defends planned return to Nato command

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The Independent Online

French officials today staunchly defended the country's anticipated return into Nato's integrated military command after an absence of more than four decades and denied that full participation in the alliance would compromise the country's independence.

In 1966, President Charles de Gaulle abruptly pulled France out of the Nato command and evicted all allied troops and bases, including its military headquarters, from France in an effort to assert sovereignty over its own territory.

De Gaulle's blunt assertion of French independence at the height of the Cold War came as a shock at the time and caused a rift with Washington that continues even today.

"We need a renewed trans-Atlantic partnership between an America that is open and a Europe that is being strengthened," Defence Minister Herve Morin told a high-level military conference on France, European defence and Nato in the 21st century.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said the country would still have full control of its fate.

"Our full participation in the alliance in no way represents ... a menace to our freedom of choice," Kouchner told the conference.

President Nicolas Sarkozy will speak later at the conference about his plans to put the country back into Nato's military command. Sarkozy has long promised the step and is expected to formalise it with a letter to Nato's leadership before a summit on 3 and 4 April in Strasbourg to celebrate the alliance's 60th anniversary.

Nato Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said France's European partners would welcome Paris' rapprochement with Nato but it was a "sovereign decision" in which the alliance would not meddle.

Sarkozy faces intense political opposition at home over the move. While he does not need parliamentary approval for it, his government will face a no-confidence vote in parliament next week on the subject.

Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry said today that "nothing" justified what she called Sarkozy's hasty quest for closer ties with Nato.

Morin batted aside fears of opposition leftists and some Gaullist conservative members of his own party, both of whom are wary of Sarkozy's pro-US tilt and fear it will limit France's ability to decide its own policies.

The "renovation of relations of France with Nato will benefit the alliance, benefit Europe and benefit France. It will be done without calling into question the independence of France," Morin said. He urged France to take on its full responsibilities in the alliance and act like an "adult."

Although it pulled out of the central decision-making core and remains outside the alliance's nuclear group and planning committee, France never left the alliance itself.

Today, it is among the top five contributors to allied military operations and the fourth-largest contributor to alliance budgets for Nato operations.

France rejoining the military command is unlikely to stir up nearly as much emotion as its withdrawal from the alliance, especially since French troops have been participating in Nato missions since the mid-1990s, including those in Bosnia, Kosovo and now Afghanistan.

"We need a renewed trans-Atlantic partnership between an America that is open and a Europe that is being strengthened," Morin said.

French media have reported that Sarkozy will officially announce his decision for France to rejoin Nato's integrated military command when he makes the closing speech to the conference.

Sarkozy's efforts mark a long-standing effort of French leaders to rejoin the highest levels of Nato that began with the Soviet collapse and the unification of Germany nearly two decades ago.

"Europe and the United States have an essential role to play but they can do it only if they are united and strong, respectful of the values that founded our system," Morin said.

Upon returning fully to Nato, France expects to receive two command posts, one in Norfolk, Virginia, responsible for defining the strategic transformation of the alliance and another in Lisbon, Portugal.