Paris retreats from military stand De Gaulle established

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WHEN the Nato summit meeting convenes in Brussels on Monday, France - which withdrew from the alliance's integrated command structure in 1966 - will almost be back to playing a full part.

In the years since General Charles de Gaulle's dramatic decision to pull France out of the military structure, seen then as a snub to the United States, Paris has moved closer and closer towards Nato.

Sources close to Francois Leotard, the centre-right Defence Minister, said yesterday that Nato members, and particularly the US, were now prepared for France to be represented fully in alliance council meetings - by foreign and defence ministers - and by senior officers in the Military Committee 'depending what is on the agenda'. The sources explained that this meant those occasions when there was a question of using French forces.

However, the sources ruled out a complete return to the integrated command structure because this would mean bringing France's independent nuclear forces under alliance control. France, they said, insisted on the right to keep an independent nuclear force and to modernise it, pointing out that the country 'was invaded three times in a century'. Each time the invader was German. The sources stressed that when French ministers participated in Nato meetings, this meant that the Western European Union (WEU) - those European Union countries, except Greece, which are also Nato members - was present as a bloc.

Such details are important for France because it has been the prime mover behind promoting the WEU as the 'European pillar' of the continent's defence, a body which could operate without the Americans to defuse crises on the continent.

This and the creation of the embryonic French, German and Belgian 'Eurocorps' with headquarters in Strasbourg have set some nerves on edge in Nato, particularly in Britain, Italy and the Netherlands, which fear such initiatives could push the US to disengage from Europe.

The main motor behind current French thinking on Nato in particular and European defence in general, is the situation in the former Yugoslavia. General Jean Cot, who heads Unprofor, the UN Protection Force there, created a stir this week by comparing UN forces - in which France has 6,500 men - with 'goats tied to a stake'.

The sources ruled out as an option suggestions from Lord Owen, the international negotiator, that UN forces might be withdrawn in the spring if no progress was made towards peace. Given the international community's failure so far to bring peace to the former Yugoslav republics, a withdrawal would add 'an even greater failure which would be both political and military', they said.