NATO gains commitment, but not for Afghanistan

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PARIS

French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s parliamentary victory last week that will return France to NATO’s integrated military command encountered fierce domestic opposition, and analysts say it is unlikely to result in a bigger French contribution to the Afghanistan war.

“Afghanistan will of course be a central issue when President Obama comes to Europe in the beginning of April,” said Bruno Tertrais, a research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research, a Paris think tank. “Yet I don’t think it will be a test for France’s new commitment to NATO.”

France has about 3,000 soldiers in Afghanistan - 700 more than a year ago - and has “no plans at all” to increase that deployment, said Emmanuel Lenain, a spokesman for the French Embassy in Washington. He added that there is “no link” between French troop levels and the reintegration to NATO’s military command.

Parliament made the decision in a 329-238 vote Tuesday, four decades after President Charles de Gaulle sought to underline French independence by withdrawing from NATO’s military command while remaining a political member of the alliance.

Mr. Sarkozy, however, signaled from the start of his presidency two years ago that he was ready to return France to the alliance’s command structure, in part to overcome the bitterness left by the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

“A state alone, a solitary nation, is a nation without influence, and if we want to count for something we have to know how to bind ourselves to allies and friendship,” Mr. Sarkozy said at a recent defense seminar in Paris.

Mr. Sarkozy’s comments failed to convince staunch opponents of NATO’s reintegration, on both sides of the political spectrum.

“No to France’s return into NATO. Yes to a free France,” read signs in Parisian streets posted before the parliamentary vote. The motto came from Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a Gaullist member of the National Assembly.

“Nicolas Sarkozy’s furious energy to subordinate our country to the United States means he has given up France’s willingness and ability to exercise self-determination on the international stage,” Mr. Dupont-Aignan said on his Web site.

Once a member of the center-right presidential party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), and now president of his own sovereignist group, Mr. Dupont-Aignan was one of several rightist officials - including two former prime ministers - expressing fierce opposition to Mr. Sarkozy’s plan.

Dominique de Villepin and Alain Juppe, former UMP prime ministers, publicly expressed their concern about the decision, which they said was a betrayal of the Gaullist legacy.

Mr. de Villepin described the decision as a serious “diplomatic mistake.”

Illustrating the divide within the presidential majority, a dozen right-wing deputies boycotted Tuesday’s vote.

“The debate is impossible in the Parliament and is reduced to almost nothing within the majority,” Francois Goulard, a member of the UMP who skipped the vote, told The Washington Times. “The French government is twisting our arm on the issue.”

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