PARIS (Reuters) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced on Wednesday that France would rejoin NATO’s military command, saying General Charles de Gaulle’s reasons for quitting the inner circle four decades ago were no longer relevant.
De Gaulle pulled out of the command structure, which is responsible for strategic planning, in a row over U.S. influence in Europe. Sarkozy told a defence conference France now needed to return to the heart of NATO to make its voice heard.
“We commit the lives of our soldiers, but do not participate in the committee that defines strategy and operations,” he said.
“We have to stop deluding ourselves that by burying our heads in the sand, we are capable of protecting anything,” he added.
France is already NATO’s fourth largest contributor of troops, and officials have said its self-imposed exile from the integrated command hindered its ability to influence decision-making within the 26-nation military bloc.
Wednesday’s announcement will make little difference on the ground in missions such as Afghanistan, where France has 2,800 troops, but it is symbolically significant and will firmly tie European defence ambitions to the Atlantic alliance.
Opinion polls show a majority of voters support the move but many of Sarkozy’s political opponents see it as a betrayal of de Gaulle’s vision of a fully independent France.
France was a founding member of NATO but de Gaulle left the command structure in 1966, during the east-west Cold War, arguing that Paris did not want to be dragged into a conflict not of its own choosing.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell welcomed France’s return.
“We are delighted that after a 43 year absence France is back where it belongs, in the command structure of the alliance it helped found,” he said.
Sarkozy said NATO faced fresh challenges and added that it was time to build a new partnership with Russia.
“In a modern world, one has to be able to change decisions taken half a century ago,” said Sarkozy, whose UMP party traces its roots back to de Gaulle’s conservative political circles.
While it is returning to the military command, Sarkozy said Paris would keep its nuclear force independent and officials said France would not join NATO’s nuclear planning committee.
France’s nuclear deterrent was developed by French engineers. Western Europe’s other nuclear power, Britain, bought its technology from the United States.
“We can have a debate on deterrents, we should have a debate on disarmament, but we will not share decision-making over our nuclear force,” said Sarkozy.
Although Sarkozy could authorise the NATO reintegration without consulting parliament, he has called a confidence vote over the issue next week to give added legitimacy to his decision. He is expected to win the vote easily.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer hailed Sarkozy’s decision to return France to the fold.
“Its full participation in all the civil and military decision-making and planning processes cannot but strengthen the alliance further,” de Hoop Scheffer said in a statement.
Sarkozy, who is due to host a 60th anniversary NATO summit in April, made a full return to the alliance conditional on creating a greater role for Europe within the organisation.
He said this demand had been met, listing a slew of European operations including a mission to tackle piracy off Somalia.
He also insisted that France would be able to maintain an independent stance within Europe, and denounced critics who said Paris would never have been able to oppose the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 if it had been fully in NATO.
“That is a shameful lie,” he said.