France draws back on Nato

France may soon scrap its attempt to rejoin the military structures of Nato, according to senior officials in Paris.

America's refusal to accept reforms requested by France makes it likely that the rapprochement, begun by President Chirac 14 months ago, will be abandoned at, or before, the Nato summit in July.

This is not yet a fait accompli. Conversations with Washington are continuing. But the officials say the French government feels it has reached a dead end and is quite prepared to declare its initiative over. The final decision will rest with President Chirac, who might find it domestically convenient to be seen to stand up to the US.

Such a reversal would have profound implications for the creation of a more effective European defence identity within Nato, and closer links between Nato and the European Union. For this reason, diplomatic sources in Paris are unwilling to accept that the game is up completely. They feel that President Chirac would be reluctant to abandon the progress already made towards European defence co-operation within the alliance.

French officials pointed out, however, that President Chirac had stated from the beginning that Paris would only rejoin the Nato military command under certain conditions. It was now evident, they said, that "Nato fundamentalists" in the Clinton administration had blocked the changes requested by France - in particular the request that the Mediterranean command should go to a European. Suggestions of a compromise - that a European general or admiral might be considered in principle - had also been rebuffed.

"In these circumstances, there can be no question of us agreeing to rejoin the military structures at the Madrid summit in July," one senior official said. "But we want this to be an amicable break. We have no intention of taking hostage other issues, such as the discussions on Nato enlargement [to the east]."

Although France remains a political member of the Western alliance, President de Gaulle withdrew from the joint command structure in 1966, complaining of excessive American control. President Chiracannounced in December 1995 that France would consider re-joining, as part of a strategic reappraisal of the country's security policy and armed forces.

Instead of attempting to build a separate European military structure outside Nato, Paris hoped to build a more operationally independent European identity within the alliance.

US officials and newspapers have speculated that President Chirac is, in any case, getting cold feet about a return to Nato. With France already committed to abolishing the franc in favour of the euro, Nato reintegration might provide one too many hostages to nationalist opinion, they suggest.

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