Monday, October 1, 2007

PARIS — New hints that France may rejoin NATO‘s military wing after a 41-year absence underscore a stunning foreign-policy shift under new President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Gone are the Iraq war diatribes, the Palestinian sympathies, the close ties with Moscow and the crumbling ones with Washington — all trademarks of French foreign policy under former President Jacques Chirac.

With his penchant for jogging, American movies and summering in New Hampshire, the 51-year-old Mr. Sarkozy has embraced a decidedly pro-U.S. tone, even as his government scores trans-Atlantic points through sharpened rhetoric against Iran and overtures to Iraq.

“France has definitely come closer to the United States since the election of Nicolas Sarkozy as president,” said French analyst Dominique Moisi. “There’s a new tone; there’s a new style; there”s a return of confidence. And of course, that does translate itself in the relationship between France and NATO.”

The case for reassessing France’s NATO membership was made last month by French Defense Minister Herve Morin.

Despite being the alliance’s fourth-largest contributor, financing 11 percent of its budget, France “does not reap all the benefits, notably in terms of influence and in posts of command,” Mr. Morin said during a September 11 speech at a military school in Toulouse.

“We will never, in my view, advance Europe’s defense strategy if we don’t clarify our position in NATO,” Mr. Morin said.

In an interview with the New York Times last week, Mr. Sarkozy clarified Paris’ conditions for rejoining. He sought Washington’s acceptance of a European defense program and a top role for France in NATO”s command structures.

“A Europe capable of defending itself independently would not be a risk for the Americans, it would be an asset,” he told the newspaper.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, on his first visit to Washington, cautioned two weeks ago against “exaggerating the practical implications” of a possible shift, noting France’s extensive contribution to NATO missions such as Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Mr. Kouchner said the French debate on NATO would be conducted “without taboo or haste,” but would only move forward along with French hopes for a strong collective European defense.

NATO officials have reacted positively to the prospect of France rejoining the military command. Having Paris back in the military fold was “very important,” Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer told reporters last month.

Still, the prospect of action in the coming months is virtually nil, analysts say. The country first must publish a much-anticipated “white paper” next spring, outlining its defense policy.

War hero-turned-president Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO”s military command in 1966, irked by Washington’s dominating role.

While France remained a key player in NATO”s political wing, Mr. de Gaulle crafted an independent military course for France, buttressed by a nuclear deterrence program known as the “force de frappe.”

France never entirely left the alliance, but “if France wants to have a greater say in the strategic direction of the alliance, one way to do so is to have a military presence at all levels, where it can insert its voice,” said Leo Michel, a fellow at the Washington-based National Defense University.

“It’s not credible to sit back and criticize the alliance for being too dominated by Americans when you, as a country, are playing with one hand tied behind your back,” Mr. Michel said.

Mr. Sarkozy casts himself as a break from France”s Gaullist past. He has vowed a “rupture” in traditional France-Africa relations and cooled ties with Russia. He has improved relations with Israel, and he and Mr. Kouchner have adopted the tough U.S. line against Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

In August, Mr. Kouchner traveled for three days to Iraq — the first by a top French envoy since the bitter split between Paris and Washington over the Iraq war.

Still, policies that appear too pro-American still do not sell well in France. Full NATO membership may not either.

“I don’t think the French are going to take to the streets and demonstrate against the return of France into the integrated military body of NATO,” Mr. Moisi said. “But there probably won’t be a whole lot of enthusiasm.”

David R. Sands contributed to this report from Washington.

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