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Last Updated: Thursday, 11 October 2007, 10:48 GMT 11:48 UK
France edges closer to Nato
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

President Sarkozy reviews troops on Bastille Day
Sarkozy is often described as an Atlanticist

Hopes are growing within Nato that President Nicolas Sarkozy will bring France back into the integrated military structure which General de Gaulle left in 1966.

Well-placed sources in Nato said: "The topic is an active one among serious people and it has many positive aspects. It is being genuinely looked at."

France is reckoned to have played a blocking and obstructive role in Nato in recent times, especially during the last years of Jacques Chirac.

The French objected to and tried to slow down the transformation of Nato from a static force guarding Europe against the Soviet Union to the kind of interventionist force seen in Afghanistan.

Even now, France avoids a major combat role in Afghanistan, in the Nato forces deployed there.

The traditional French view has been that Nato is too much dominated by the United States and that more emphasis should be put on a purely European-led defence.

France has been a semi-detached member of Nato, rather as Britain is in the EU. It plays a full political role but withdrew its forces from the integrated multi-national command formations that were set up to respond to any attack.

Sarkozy's price

The thinking now is that President Sarkozy wants France back at the heart of Nato, its military structures. Mr Sarkozy is far less anti-American than his predecessor and his readiness to reintegrate France is part of his wider policy of working with and not against the United States.

Sculpture of Nato logo at organisation's Brussels HQ
Founded: 1949
Membership: 26 nations
Applicant nations: Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia

However, he has a price, which he laid out in an interview with the New York Times in September.

He wants the US to accept that there have to be moves to strengthen European defence institutions, especially the emerging European Union ones.

He also wants France to get a good share of the senior Nato command posts.

When President Chirac made an attempt to reintegrate France in 1996, he demanded the southern command for a French or at least a European officer, but the United States rejected this and the attempt came to nothing.

France has proposed as a first step a series of closer of contacts between Nato and the EU on the grounds that many countries are members of each grouping. It wants, for example, the EU foreign policy representative to brief the Nato council and vice versa.

Recognising reality

There is great enthusiasm within Nato for a greater French role. "The French have a good military and lots of them," said one official. "The French military have always been more keen on this than French diplomats. Certainly they would expected senior posts. "

There will be sceptics who might fear that France will continue to be a disruptive influence within Nato and will constantly try to downplay Nato in favour of strengthening EU defence institutions.

However, the main European Nato players, the British and the Germans, have held out against downgrading Nato since the end of the Cold War and France would be recognising reality if it joined in more closely.

European defence forces

EU defence forces are at a very early stage of development. There is a mini "Euro army" ready to deploy on peacekeeping duties at 1,500-strong battlegroup strength and there is a permanent military staff in Brussels.

But Nato still provides the punch and will go on doing so for the foreseeable future, especially with Russia in a determined and sometimes even threatening mood, something that concerns the newer Nato members in East Europe. Poland, for example, has a policy of establishing a close security relationship with the US and would never want to rely on purely European defences.

Nevertheless, it is inevitable that Europe should develop its own defence over time. The then British and French leaders Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac gave a major boost to European defence co-operation at St Malo in 1998 when they agreed that the EU should acquire a "capacity for autonomous action".

Hopes of a force of 60,000 have fizzled out, however, and there is a long way to go before the EU develops what the Maastricht Treaty laid down in 1992 - that the EU should develop policies that "might in time lead to a common defence".

Profile: Nato
24 Feb 07 |  Country profiles

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