- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

PARIS (AP) - French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government faces a no-confidence vote in parliament Tuesday prompted by its plans to rejoin NATO’s military command, a move that lawmakers on the left and right fear would compromise France’s independence.

The conservative government is nearly certain to survive the vote, but the proposal of tighter ties with NATO has ignited political tensions in a country that has long taken pride in setting its own diplomatic and defense direction.

Defense Minister Herve Morin, in an interview with The Associated Press, insisted that France would retain its independence while gaining a greater say in NATO _ including about such touchy topics as expanding the alliance to Russia’s backyard, a prospect France opposes.

Morin said before the no-confidence vote that any expansion of the alliance “cannot be decided without talking to our Russian neighbor.”

Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO’s military command in 1966 and booted American troops and the alliance’s headquarters off French soil, seeking a less U.S.-oriented policy during the Cold War and sovereign control over France’s burgeoning nuclear force.

France remained a member of NATO, has a large force in Afghanistan and has increased its involvement in the alliance in recent years.

But it has remained a part-time player. Rejoining the military command would allow France to make key planning decisions within the alliance and put French officers in charge of command posts.

Prime Minister Francois Fillon, at the start of Tuesday’s parliamentary debate, sought to minimize the move. “In 1966, at the height of East-West tensions, our withdrawal constituted a shock. But in 2009, our return constitutes only an adjustment,” he told lawmakers.

Sarkozy says it is time to climb back into NATO’s control room, arguing that the end of the Cold War and cross-border threats such as terrorism have heightened the need for international military cooperation.

He does not need parliamentary approval to rejoin, and has said he will send a letter soon to NATO’s command announcing his decision.

After Tuesday’s debate, the parliament will vote whether it has confidence in the government’s foreign policy. While a few dozen UMP party members are opposed to rejoining the NATO military command, most do not want the UMP-led government to collapse, and so are expected to support Fillon in the confidence vote.

Former Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, of the opposition Socialist Party, accused the government of manipulating legislators and said the debate over rejoining the military command raises questions that “deeply touch a part of France’s identity.”

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