- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 12, 2009

PARIS | President Nicolas Sarkozy forcefully defended his intention to return France to the heart of NATO’s military command after 43 years away and insisted Wednesday that staying outside the alliance’s highest echelons any longer would weaken France.

Mr. Sarkozy said he would write to other NATO members to announce his decision after a debate next week in the French parliament. The French leader’s drive to end the rift with the United States over its participation in NATO has aroused old and fierce passions among both leftist and some conservative lawmakers fearful that a closer relationship with the American-led alliance could limit France’s cherished ability to act independently on the world stage.

In his speech Wednesday, however, an animated and at times defiant Mr. Sarkozy insisted that France’s “independence will not be in question” - a clear message to critics at home - and he said France will maintain control over its nuclear arsenal.

In 1966, President Charles de Gaulle abruptly pulled France out of the NATO command and evicted all allied troops and bases, including its military headquarters, from France in an effort to assert sovereignty over its own territory.

Mr. de Gaulle’s blunt assertion of French independence at the height of the Cold War came as a shock at the time and caused a rift with Washington that deepened in 2003 when France kept its troops out of the American-led invasion of Iraq.

France is a NATO member, but has remained outside the central decision-making core for four decades.

“The time has come to put an end to this situation,” Mr. Sarkozy said, arguing that new threats require greater international military cooperation, not less. “It is in France’s interest and that of Europe. In concluding this long process, France will be stronger and more influential.”

Mr. Sarkozy lamented the fact that France has no major command in NATO, that it did not participate in defining top-level strategy or military objectives even though it has troops under NATO command.

“We commit the lives of our soldiers, but do not participate in the committee that defines strategy and operations,” Reuters news agency quoted him as saying. “We have to stop deluding ourselves that by burying our heads in the sand, we are capable of protecting anything.”

Mr. Sarkozy firmly rejected opposition criticism that France would be forced to follow the alliance’s line even on military missions it opposed.

“Some tell me this choice would be a betrayal of General de Gaulle, an alignment with Washington … and that after all, if we had been in the military command, we would have been forced to take part in the war against Iraq in 2003. Lie! Lie!”

Mr. Sarkozy has long promised the step and is expected to formalize it with a letter to NATO’s leadership before a summit April 3-4 in Strasbourg, France, to celebrate the alliance’s 60th anniversary.

While Mr. Sarkozy does not need parliamentary approval for the move, his government will face a no-confidence vote in parliament next week on the subject after a parliamentary debate.

“NATO would welcome this step,” alliance spokesman James Appathurai said in Brussels, calling it a “win-win situation” that would bolster European defense. Kurt Volker, U.S. ambassador to NATO, said Washington would “welcome” France’s return.

French troops have been participating in NATO missions since the mid-1990s, including those in Bosnia, Kosovo and now Afghanistan.

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