- The Washington Times - Friday, March 20, 2009

PARIS (AP) - President Nicolas Sarkozy has submitted a formal request to rejoin the NATO command structure following a 43-year absence, French and NATO officials said Friday.

A letter with the request was presented Thursday to NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer during an EU summit in Brussels, the officials said on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Submitting the letter was a formality, but an essential step in France’s return to the alliance _ which celebrates its 60th birthday in two weeks.

The NATO official said the alliance must now decide what sort of command posts France will take up.

Upon fully returning to NATO, France expects to receive two command posts _ one in Norfolk, Virginia, responsible for defining the strategic transformation of the alliance, and another in Lisbon, Portugal.

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.

France remained a NATO member, but has stayed outside the decision-making core since de Gaulle’s pullout.

De Gaulle’s 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 troop out of the American-led invasion of Iraq.

Sarkozy, a conservative, has sought to mend frayed relations with the U.S. since taking office in 2007, and the election of President Barack Obama has boosted his efforts.

Earlier this month, Sarkozy announced his intention to rejoin NATO’s integrated military command, insisting he wanted France to be able participate fully in alliance military planning and in crafting NATO policy.

The United States and NATO welcomed Sarkozy’s comments, but the French leader’s plan aroused fierce passions among both leftist and some conservative lawmakers at home. They voiced fears that a closer relationship with the U.S.-led alliance could limit France’s prized ability to act independently on the world stage.

Amid the opposition to Sarkozy’s plan, Prime Minister Francois Fillon proposed a parliamentary no-confidence motion _ which the government handily survived. Lawmakers in France’s lower house voted 329-238 on Tuesday in favor of the government’s foreign policy.

French troops have been participating in NATO missions since the mid-1990s, including in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan. France is now among the top five contributors to allied military operations and the No. 4 benefactor to alliance budgets for NATO operations.



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