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Saturday, April 24, 1999 Published at 13:48 GMT 14:48 UK

World: Europe

French pilots fly for Nato

Presidents Jacques Chirac, Vaclav Havel and Bill Clinton at Nato's 50th anniversary

By John Laurenson in Paris

It may come as a surprise that the second largest force in the Nato campaign in Kosovo is in fact French.

Kosovo: Special Report
French planes make up 10% of Operation Allied Force - even though France pulled out of Nato's integrated military command structure in 1966.

But the country's political leaders are not taking part in the bombing in order to support a US-led operation.

Instead France wants to create a European counterbalance to America - and to show it too can face up to the challenge of war in the EU's "own back yard".

[ image: French Chief of Staff Jean-Pierre Kelche at a press briefing on French forces]
French Chief of Staff Jean-Pierre Kelche at a press briefing on French forces
Both Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and President Jacques Chirac "have an of Europe, where the primary concern is to create a counterbalance to American power", says Defence Minister Alain Richard.

The French people have been no less outraged by the ethnic cleansing of Kosovo Albanians than any other.

And perhaps the ideal of European union is steering French policy in this war as well.

Political divide

Those politicians who support Nato action are also those who want closer EU involvement.

It is the political fringes which are against both the bombing and European integration.

Lionel Jospin's gauche plurielle, a left-wing government coalition of socialists, environmentalists, communists and left-wing nationalists, appears divided.

Most of Mr Jospin's socialists have rallied to his pro-Nato stance and, although the traditionally pacifist Greens have been limp in their support, they have also been muted in their criticism.

[ image: Air France offices in Belgrade: Atacked by protesters]
Air France offices in Belgrade: Atacked by protesters
But a "Nato go home!" headline on the front page of the communist newspaper Humanité at the start of the bombing provoked calls for the resignation of his communist government ministers - although these have died down.

The most prominent government member to oppose France's support for the Nato campaign is Interior Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, leader of the socialist splinter party Mouvement des Citoyens.

Chevènement is an anti-American and an anti-European who, at the start of Operation Desert Storm in the Gulf War, resigned his post as Defence Minister in protest.

This time he is keeping quiet and it is left to Chevènement's supporters, such as the historian and intellectual Max Gallo, to rail in the newspaper opinion pages against Nato's attack on "a sovereign nation".

Fringe protests

On the extreme left, the anti-EU Lutte Ouvrière, or Worker's Struggle, has condemned the Nato action as an imperialist bid by the USA to extend its power nearer the territory of the former Soviet Union.

Commemoration not celebration
Rude awakening for new members
Alliance's Cold War roots
Fast facts:
Nato: Who, what, why
The main parties on the right, the RPR and the UDF, support the Nato action - again it is only the euro-sceptic fringe that has condemned the bombings.

Former Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, a veteran of the anti-Maastricht referendum campaign, is a Gaullist whose close, covert connections with francophone Africa have left an ideological imprint.

He believes the USA can never be truly on the side of France.

The two National Fronts of Jean-Marie Le Pen and his rival Bruno Mégret both see the Kosovo crisis as American "aggression" against Serbia, with a risk of further immigration and the danger of concerted rise of "fanatical Islam" in Europe.

However, most French people and politicians support their country's action and maybe by implication, a closer Europe - good news for Nato on its 50th anniversary.

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