It was a chronicle of a return foretold. Academics, members of parliament and diplomats, as well as current and former cabinet ministers had gathered, against the impressive backdrop of the École Militaire in Paris, to attend a conference titled "France, European Defense and NATO in the 21st Century." The event made it seem as if the decision of the day had not been made yet. That afternoon, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had used the ceremonial backdrop of the Foch Amphitheater to announce his country's reintegration into all structures of the Atlantic alliance.
Citing his "responsibility for the nation's strategic decisions" and noting that strategic conditions in the world have changed considerably, Sarkozy pledged France's "full commitment" at the side of its partners -- 43 years after former President and General Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from the Atlantic alliance.
France's reintegration into NATO creates a largely symbolic orientation, with which Sarkozy, a committed friend of the United States (and Israel), seeks to liberate himself from the doubts of his European friends. But with this one-sided diplomatic move, Sarkozy was merely promoting France's interests.
Nevertheless, Sarko's turnaround represents a "break " with tradition. NATO, created after World War II, on April 4, 1949, was an allied organization designed to defend the West against the Soviet Union and serve as a counterweight against the Warsaw Pact. France was a founding member of the North Atlantic Treaty Alliance.
The French withdrawal from NATO's integrated military and leadership structures took place in March 1966, because de Gaulle refused to allow the French armed forces to submit to US command. It was the middle of the Cold War, and the fact that La Grande Nation, which had just become a nuclear power, was going it alone was perceived as a destabilizing maneuver.
But the separation was not destined to last forever. In fact, France's subsequent rapprochement with NATO took place in stages. By 1992, France had joined the NATO operations in Kosovo, and French troops later participated in military campaigns in Afghanistan. In 1996, Paris said that it would re-establish a permanent military mission to NATO, and in 2004 French military officials were once again part of the NATO command. Since then, the French flag has fluttered in front of NATO headquarters once again, and today more than 4,000 French soldiers are deployed on NATO missions worldwide.
The End of the French Exception
Now Paris has put an end to the "French exception" and is turning its back on an "anti-American" reflex. France's change of heart is likely to be celebrated symbolically in early April a the NATO summit meeting in Strasbourg, France, and across the Rhine River in Kehl, Germany. In practice, however, the changes will have few consequences. France's return will provide 900 officers with NATO jobs and, most of all, Paris will be rewarded by being given command of two structures. This, at least, is the apparent upshot of a behind-the-scenes agreement between Elysée Palace and the White House.
The new French members of the General Staff will supervise the Allied Command Transformation project in Virginia. In addition, French military officials will take over regional command headquarters in Lisbon, the location of NATO's Rapid Reaction Force and its satellite reconnaissance system.
The amount of power that a land Sarkozy refers to as "a major power like France" is regaining with its return to the NATO structures is a matter of controversy among experts and even within the ranks of Sarkozy's party. In particular, there is growing dissatisfaction among old-guard Gaullists, who interpret Sarkozy's policy of a "break" with the old simply as a betrayal of de Gaulle's legacy. And it's not just the Socialists and their former prime ministers, Lionel Jospin and Laurent Fabius, who reject the president's about face -- even Sarkozy's former colleagues from the conservative governing party, Alain Juppé and Dominique de Villepin, have publicly criticized the change of heart on NATO.
Solidarity with Berlin
All of this was reason enough for Sarkozy to underscore, in his address, the notion that the return to the command structure of NATO is "in the interest of France and Europe" and would represent a "strengthening of our sovereignty." "We cannot risk the lives of our soldiers without taking part in the planning," the president said, insisting that Paris would continue to reserve the right to a "freedom of assessment" before deploying its troops on NATO missions.
Of course, to ensure that the NATO debate would not turn into a fiasco in the National Assembly in Paris, Sarkozy asked his prime minister to hold a vote of confidence after the debate, which is hardly likely to permit opposition. This gives Prime Minister Francois Fillon a tool to pressure the dissidents within his party and bring them back on course with the administration.
Sarkozy can also celebrate another triumph. The president's decision has met with far less criticism from the public. In fact, 58 percent of the French support their country's return to the NATO command structures.
Sarkozy received congratulatory notes on his speech from Brussels and applause from Berlin -- even before he had given it. In a perfect show of solidarity between President Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the two politicians sang the praises of the defense alliance leading up to the Munich Security Conference. "As a response to crises and conflicts, the alliances that are based on shared values -- the European Union and NATO -- are becoming increasingly important," the wrote in a joint newspaper contribution.