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NATO Welcomes French Decision to Rejoin Military Command

NATO has welcomed President Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement that France is to fully reintegrate into the military alliance in a significant shift away from French exceptionalism.

NATO headquarters in Brussels

Sarkozy committed Paris to closer ties with NATO and a stronger European defense policy

NATO on Tuesday, June 17, welcomed French President Nicolas Sarkozy's announcement that France had decided its future security is best guaranteed within Europe and the NATO military alliance and his plans for an overhaul of the military.

"The secretary general welcomes the announcement by French President Sarkozy that there are no obstacles to France rejoining the integrated command," NATO spokesman James Appathurai said on Tuesday, June 17.

The White House likewise embraced the move. "We welcome the announcement," Gordon Johndroe, White House national security spokesman, said.

Stephen Hadley, President George W. Bush's national security adviser, said in April at the NATO summit in Bucharest that Bush was in favor of France coming back into the integrated command, and generally favored European partners boosting capacities for EU and NATO missions.

Hadley "made it very clear that the United States wants a strong partner in Europe, wants a strong EU partner, and that involves both more military capability for those countries, but also partnering NATO's military capability with EU civilian and political capabilities," Johndroe added.

A return to NATO military command

France announced a return to NATO on Tuesday, 42 years after former President Charles de Gaulle left the alliance it helped found, angry at what he saw as the Anglo-American dominance of the alliance.

"I want the alliance to be more European, and how can we have a more European alliance without France," said Sarkozy.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy

Sarkozy outlined plans for a reintegration into NATO's military wing after 42 years

The president announced his country’s return while outlining France’s defense priorities over the next 15 years, during which, he said, terrorism would be the number one threat. Sarkozy said the military must put a new emphasis on security within France's borders and adapt to modern challenges from terrorism to computer attacks.

Underscoring the focus on intelligence-gathering, a new national security council will be set up at Elysee Palace.

Sarkozy urged a strong European defence policy and said France would revamp ties with NATO. But he insisted that France would always retain control of its own forces and keep independent control of its nuclear deterrent, which would remain the cornerstone of its defence structure.

Leaner, more mobile army

The plan further shows France maintaining defence spending at about two percent of gross domestic product. That means that from now until 2020, some 377 billion euros ($579.1 billion) will be spent on defense (excluding pensions).

In order to create a more mobile and better-equipped military, the proposals also call for a cutting back of thousands of troops. The air force staff, for example, would be cut from 65,000 to 50,000. Four permanent bases in Africa would also be closed as defense aims shift.

Former NATO head and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana welcomed the reforms.

"I think the armed forces of several countries are very big on paper. But what is needed are forces that are available, even if there's no need for millions of soldiers, forces that are available in a real way, with proper equipment," he said.

French soliders on a NATO patrol

The plans foresee the creation of a leaner, more mobile French army

Despite the country’s individual cuts, the new strategy is said to showcase the government’s desire to make European defense a priority once France takes over the EU’s rotating presidency beginning July 1. As part of the plan, Sarkozy called for the establishment of a European rapid intervention force of 60,000 soldiers.

Until recently, the United States and Britain have been reluctant to strengthen European defenses, concerned that such a move would prove expensive and duplicate NATO capabilities.

Critics fear loss of French foreign policy independence

Though France continues to play a role in decision-making bodies, it is not part of the integrated command structure. French troops have taken part in NATO operations over the last several decades. In the 1990s, France sent troops to the Balkans. Two years ago, troops went to Pakistan to help with disaster relief work following the earthquake.

France likewise has a contingent in the NATO-led security force in Afghanistan; Sarkozy has committed to expanding that, sending some 700 soldiers to the volatile east to help with operations in the war-torn country.

Still, questions remained about how exactly France would re-enter the fray. "Obviously, it's up to France exactly how and when it wants to resume its full participation in NATO structures," said Appathurai.

In France, however, not all were excited about the announcement.

Several members of Sarkozy's own ruling party have protested what they see as a loss of France’s hallmark independence in foreign policy -- a betrayal of de Gaulle's legacy.

Members of the opposition Socialist party likewise criticized the move, accusing the president, the most Atlanticist French president in recent years, of sucking up to Washington.

Sarkozy hit back at his critics. "We can renew our relations with NATO without fear for our independence and without running the risk of being unwillingly dragged into a war."

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