Page last updated at 11:32 GMT, Wednesday, 11 March 2009

French split over rejoining Nato

Republican Guard march during Bastille day ceremonies in Paris

By Lucy Gill
BBC Monitoring

French President Nicolas Sarkozy's determination to see France fully re-integrated into the command structure of Nato has caused consternation in some parts of the French media.

Mr Sarkozy is expected to confirm the move in a speech on Wednesday evening.

Despite government assurances, many commentators fear that France is about to abandon an important symbol of its independence from the United States on the international stage.

President Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of the integrated military command in 1966 - though it remained a Nato member - and ordered the withdrawal of all foreign Nato troops from France, arguing that they crippled Paris' freedom to pursue its own foreign policy.

We will be in a better position to defend our national interests
Bruno Tertrais
French strategic expert

In an interview with the centre-right Le Figaro newspaper, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner stressed the government's position that re-integration will boost France's influence inside Nato as it will secure "significant command posts and above all involvement in the formulation of plans that we [as Nato members] must, if we agree, implement."

He said the concerns over French sovereignty that prompted the withdrawal in 1966 were no longer relevant: "[De Gaulle] did not want foreign troops stationed in France that were not under French command. The context has changed now. The Warsaw Pact and the communist threat no longer exist."

Mr Kouchner's arguments were endorsed by Le Figaro editorialist Pierre Rousselin: "Rather than just applying decisions taken by others, our military and our industries will be able to take part in the elaboration of doctrine and the creation of new weapons systems," he said.

Bruno Tertrais, a research fellow at the Fondation pour la Recherche Strategique , agreed in the centre-left Le Monde daily that with French commanders occupying key positions inside Nato, "we will be in a better position to defend our national interests".

France 'castrated'

However other political commentators, including a number of former ministers from both left and right, have been queuing up to denounce the plans as a threat to France's independence, influence and national identity.

If tomorrow, we integrated into Nato, would we, could we, maintain the position that we have done on Iraq?
Dominique de Villepin
Former French foreign minister

"In an uncertain world, France must retain its ability to freely assess for itself international realities and then play its full role, without having to censor itself in the name of transatlantic solidarity," wrote the former French Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, in the left-wing Nouvel Observateur weekly.

Dominique de Villepin, who as foreign minister between 2002-2004 championed France's opposition to the Iraq war, expressed his opposition in similar terms. Speaking on the Canal+ TV station, Mr Villepin said: "The independent positioning of France is essential for the global balance of power. If tomorrow, we integrated into Nato, would we, could we, maintain the position that we have done on Iraq?"

Advocates of re-integration say these arguments overlook Nato's "unanimity principle". Alain Duhamel, a writer in the left-wing Liberation paper, said that "except in the case of an attack on another member, no Nato state has to take part in an operation in against a third country except those that want to".

Nevertheless, many critics of re-integration see it as a symbol of what they say is President Sarkozy's desire to ingratiate himself with the US at any cost.

Roland Hureaux in the left-wing Marianne magazine said that re-integration would fulfil the expectations of those across the Atlantic who hoped that "Sarko the American" would "castrate France once and for all".

'Storm in a teacup'

At the opposite end of the political spectrum Philippe de Villiers, who leads the nationalist Mouvement pour la France , warned in Le Figaro that France will be reduced to nothing more than "a clone of Great Britain".

According to former Socialist premier Laurent Fabius, "the question of Nato has been one of the few areas of consensus in the French nation". On a video posting on the Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS) website he accused the president of "shattering this consensus for no reason other than an excessive Atlanticism".

However, a recent opinion poll published in Le Nouvel Observateur revealed that 52% of the French public were actually in favour of re-integration, with some 70% of 18-25-year-olds expressing approval.

"A storm in a tea-cup" is how Axel Poniatowski, the chair of the National Assembly's Foreign Affairs Committee and member of the governing UMP party, described the re-integration.

In his posting on the IRIS site, he said that France, which has participated in all of Nato's military operations and is on 38 of its committees, has been re-integrating into Nato "little by little ever since the Fall of the Berlin Wall".

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