President Nicolas Sarkozy has announced that France is to rejoin Nato's integrated military structure, which it left in 1966.
What is the integrated military structure?
It is the organisation that plans and commands Nato's military forces. Nato has its military headquarters in Mons, in Belgium, under the supreme allied commander, currently General John Craddock of the United States. There are commands for land, sea and air forces and rapidly deployable headquarters units.
The concept was created in the early 1950s when it was felt that Nato, facing the Soviet Union, needed a proper military command structure of its own rather than rely on a variety of national forces. At that time France was part of this structure.
Why did France leave the military command?
Because General de Gaulle felt that Nato was dominated by the United States and Britain and he wanted France, while remaining a member of Nato, to have greater independence.
Stage by stage, he withdrew France's forces from Nato's command, starting with its Mediterranean fleet in 1959. In 1966, all French forces were removed from the integrated command and all foreign forces told to leave France. Since Nato's military headquarters were near Paris, these had to be moved to Belgium.
How could France withdraw its forces yet remain in Nato?
Because Nato is also a political organisation. France remained part of this and at the same time reassured its Nato partners that it would take part in the defence of Western Europe in the event of a Soviet attack. It retained forces in West Germany for this purpose. Nato accepted this compromise.
Why is President Sarkozy taking France back in?
He is far more sympathetic to the United States than many of his predecessors and feels in the post-Soviet era that France no longer needs to display its independence in this way. He argues that in fact France is losing out by not being in the command structure. It takes part in Nato military operations anyway (it has air and land forces in Afghanistan) so wants to be more closely involved in the planning and command process.
He has chosen Nato's 60th anniversary, to be celebrated at meetings in France and Germany in April, to do so.
Does this mean that France will be forced to take part in Nato operations?
No, because Nato acts only by consensus and each member is free to act as it sees fit. However, being part of the command and control organisation will make it easier for France to participate if it chooses to do so.
What difference will this decision make?
Not a great deal in practice. France is already committed under the Nato treaty to joint action if a member is attacked and it is taking part in Nato's war against the Taleban in Afghanistan.
However, the move has considerable political, diplomatic and symbolic importance, as it signals an end to an era of French separation. It ends the anomaly of the country contributing the fourth largest number of troops (after the US, UK and Germany) being outside the command structure
Does France have a price for this decision?
France wants some senior commands to be filled by French officers but beyond that it wants the United States to accept the idea of a European defence policy. Such a policy is allowed for in the EU's Maastricht Treaty of 1992 which laid down that the EU should develop policies that "might in time lead to a common defence."
However that time is a long way off and it remains to be seen if European countries are ever willing to commit sufficient forces for that defence without the US. The EU does have a mini force of 1500 with a military staff in Brussels and this could be developed.
What about France's nuclear weapons?
France has its own nuclear force, the Force de Frappe, with warheads carried by submarines, aircraft and missiles. The force was built to retain French independence in the event of a major threat and as an insurance policy in case the US did not defend Europe successfully. This force has never been under Nato command and will not be so now.