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France in NATO: What would de Gaulle say?

Posted by Kris Roman on February 22, 2009

de_gaulle-owiA betrayal of General de Gaulle’s independent foreign policy, or a timely rejection of knee-jerk anti-Americanism? France’s imminent return to NATO’s command structure has triggered fierce debate.

While the move will make little difference on the battlefield — French forces have long played a key role in NATO missions from Afghanistan to the Balkans — its symbolic quality has ruffled France’s political class.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has made it clear that he will confirm France’s formal return to NATO’s military command before the Alliance’s summit in Strasbourg and Kehl on the Franco-German border on April 4.

According to some critics, the nominally Gaullist Sarkozy is turning his back on a proud legacy created by President Charles de Gaulle in 1966, when France left NATO in order to establish a proper distance from Washington.

Others argue that a nuclear-armed France is already a de facto pillar of the alliance and would have more influence on policy from within NATO’s chain of command than it has simply sitting on its political councils.

“This has gone beyond a rational debate, we are caught up in symbolism,” warned Yves Boyer, from the Strategic Research Foundation.

More than 40 years after De Gaulle’s decision, Sarkozy’s change of tack has been attacked by his left-wing opposition, which sees a threat to France’s perceived role as a western counterbalance to Washington’s power.

“We are America’s ally, not its vassal. We’re going to end up with a quite different political reality as regards our ties with a lot of other countries,” former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius argued.

Another Socialist lawmaker, Jean-Michel Boucheron, warned France would become a “second-class Britain” and Sarkozy’s former presidential election rival Segolene Royal saw the move as “France retreating into the West.”

Even on the right, within a Gaullist movement that chose Sarkozy as its champion not without reserves, there is widespread hostility towards his plan to jettison this key element of the General’s legacy.

Former prime minister Dominique de Villepin, best known outside France for his impassioned attack at the United Nations on US plans to invade Iraq, said it would be a mistake to reduce France’s room for manoeuvre.

“To underline our attachment to the Western bloc at a moment when the West is no longer the only player, far from it, and the countries of the South are rising, is a strategic and presentational mistake,” he said.

“Leaning East, reaching out to the South, always looking for solutions that others can’t find — that’s France’s role,” he told Canal Plus television.

“It’s true that for now NATO decisions must be unanimous but I went through the Iraqi crisis and I know the pressure the Americans bring to bear when they think their own security is at stake is very hard to resist.”

Sarkozy’s supporters argue he is both acknowledging the post Cold War reality of France’s western alignment and taking an opportunity to strengthen France’s role in defining any future common European defence policy.

“In 1966, General De Gaulle’s decision was tied to the birth of France’s independent nuclear deterrent,” argued Pierre Lellouche, a right-wing lawmaker and former chairman of NATO’s committee of parliamentarians.

“We were in an Alliance where forces were to be engaged automatically in the event of a Soviet attack. We had a problem with combining automatic decision making with a finger on the nuclear trigger,” he explained.

“Today, we’re not in the same situation. Whether to take part or not in NATO missions, often with a mandate from the United Nations, is a sovereign decision for member states,” he argued.

At least one Gaullist has been won over — former prime minister Alain Juppe wrote in Le Monde that “a return to NATO would not be a sacrilege” even if he admitted “no-one can say what De Gaulle would have said today.”


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