- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

PARIS (AP) - Closer ties with Washington, and an olive branch for Moscow: France’s defense minister on Tuesday laid out French plans to rejoin a crucial post in U.S.-led NATO, while insisting that Russia must have a say in constructing European security.

Herve Morin said in an interview that France has no regrets about rejoining NATO’s integrated military command, a position it quit 43 years ago.

“This step is designed so that we find our full place in the decision-making,” he told The Associated Press from under 17th-century portraits in his sun-dappled Paris office. “We are actors, and we want to write the script.”

President Nicolas Sarkozy, a firm believer in close friendship with the United States, first announced plans to rejoin the command in late 2007. But with criticism of that proposal building in recent weeks, his government called a no-confidence vote in the lower house of parliament on the subject Tuesday. It was assured passage _ and slid through at 329 to 238 votes _ because fellow conservatives have a majority in the National Assembly.

The vote was not binding. Sarkozy ultimately has the final word, and it is expected to come in a letter to NATO chiefs before he, President Barack Obama and other leaders of NATO members meet at its 60th anniversary summit on April 3-4.

France’s role in the 26-member alliance has been misunderstood for too long, Morin said. The country was a founding member in 1949 and never left. It is now the fourth largest contributor to NATO in terms of troops and money and has been involved in NATO’s major alliance missions since 1995.

But France has still been seen as a relative outsider since 1966, when President Charles de Gaulle pulled France out of the NATO command and evicted U.S. troops and the alliance’s headquarters from French soil to affirm France’s independence and its rise as a nuclear power in that Cold War world.

Rejoining the military command would allow France to make planning decisions within NATO and put French officers in command posts.

France’s return has come with conditions: It wants to give Europe a greater say in NATO policymaking, and dispel concerns that its plans to build a European Union defense force would compete with NATO.

“We had a lot of trouble in advancing European defense because our European partners read into it that we had the idea _ often unfounded _ to weaken the Atlantic alliance,” Morin said.

France’s outlook is important because it may take over two key NATO posts, including one in Norfolk, Virginia, responsible for laying out the alliance’s long-term strategy. Prime Minister Francois Fillon, the first official to raise the issue publicly, told lawmakers Tuesday that France would “doubtless” be given the Norfolk command, “where the future of NATO is discussed.”

Morin said France believes that NATO must remain “first a collective security pact. Today, it’s an instrument of peacekeeping and security _ it’s that above all.”

“The renovation of the strategic concept, the renovation of the alliance’s missions, must not lead, in our view, to a NATO that would become a ‘global NATO’,” he said.

U.S. officials _ and to a lesser extent, other member states _ have in the past mentioned the term “global NATO” with a view toward increasing its operational zone and partnerships, alliance spokesman James Appathurai said. Critics fear that could create a rival for global tasks better suited for the United Nations.

Morin said France also believes Moscow must be consulted before any further expansion of the alliance, which the former Soviet states of Georgia and Ukraine have been looking to join.

“These are things that cannot be decided without speaking to our Russian neighbor,” Morin said. “(Europe’s) security architecture must be built with Russia.”

Morin said France has no plans to boost its military role in Afghanistan _ NATO’s toughest test _ beyond the 3,300 French troops there now.

“We’ve made a considerable effort in the last 18 months _ more than 1,000 men _ and that for now there’s no question of going beyond that,” he said, referring to France’s troop increase in Afghanistan last year.

While France will remain “master of its territory and its airspace,” the shift will allow Paris to be able to weigh in on the evolution of NATO.

“(Now) we are totally in the game,” Morin said.

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