Leading article: The French connection

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The Independent Online

There seems to be a new Atlanticist flavour to French foreign policy. Over the summer the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, shared hot dogs with the US President at the Bush family compound in Kennebunkport. M. Sarkozy's foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner, has adopted a more bellicose line on Iran, which has pleased Washington. Now we learn that France is planning to make a formal offer to rejoin the military command of Nato, reversing a walk out four decades ago by Charles de Gaulle.

The Nato decision is the most tangible evidence of a shift in French foreign policy. It will no doubt be portrayed in Washington as France coming in from the cold after the isolation of the Chirac years. But M. Sarkozy's motives are more complex. The President's real goal is unlikely to be the strengthening of the western alliance, much less supporting the ailing Bush Administration. President Sarkozy wants to put France at the centre of global military affairs, a position from which he feels his country slipped under President Chirac. This is part of President Sarkozy's much vaunted policy of "rupture" with the past.

The overtures could even be something of a Trojan horse strategy as far as Nato is concerned. If France, with its large military, rejoins the Nato command it will inevitably strengthen European influence in the organisation. This could then boost the case for a European Defence Force, which could one day become more important than Nato in Europe.

Is any of this desirable? The purpose of Nato certainly needs to be re-examined, and the renewed French participation should spark that debate. The end of the Cold War has thrown Nato into confusion. The rise of international Islamic extremism has merely exposed its lack of unity. Nato has been under huge strain in Afghanistan. It has 40,000 troops stationed in the country but commanders complain that they lack helicopters, mobile units and instructors to train the Afghan army. There is also a disagreement over purpose. While Britain, Canada and Denmark are attempting to suppress the Taliban militarily in the south, Germany and Italy are refusing to allow their troops to engage in anything but reconstruction work. This is creating bad blood. Some commanders are suggesting that Afghanistan could be the operation that breaks Nato.

As for greater European co-operation on defence matters, it is certainly desirable in theory, but whether European nations would work together better under the umbrella of the European Defence Force than they do under a Nato command remains to be seen.

With President Sarkozy's American overtures everything could change. But, for now at least, everything remains the same.