France considers return to NATO command
France has raised the possibility of rejoining NATO's military command after a 40-year absence, signalling what could be one of the biggest foreign policy changes in decades.
Defence Minister Herve Morin gave a keynote speech that confirmed President Nicolas Sarkozy's ambition to strengthen France's role in the Atlantic Alliance.
Since taking power in May, Sarkozy has underscored the importance of the Franco-American relationship, and stressed that Europe's fledgling defence system should not compete with the 26-member NATO.
The French president said last month he would shortly take "very strong" initiatives on European defence and to give France "its full place" in the NATO military alliance.
Some experts believe Sarkozy could soon end France's 40-year absence from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's military command, from which President Charles de Gaulle withdrew in 1966.
On Tuesday, at a military and defence industry congress, Morin said he was "convinced that European defence will make no progress unless France changes its political behaviour within NATO."
"We are too often the ones who bicker and hesitate, as if we wanted to give the impression we don't want NATO to transform itself," he told delegates in Toulouse, southwestern France.
If France -- the fifth largest financial contributor to NATO -- becomes a more cooperative ally, Morin appeared to suggest, it would be easier to win backing for European defence projects among NATO's members in Europe.
Morin insisted France's "priority is to support and relaunch Europe's security and defence policy", but asked: "Why should our partners lose faith in a system that has ensured peace for 50 years, in favour of a system that does not yet exist?"
Paris rejoined NATO's military committee in 1996 grouping military chiefs of staff under President Jacques Chirac.
But the rapprochement was cut short after Washington refused to share more power with European countries in the integrated military structure.
Morin suggested France could now resume "the work begun in 1996", saying that France's role in NATO would be tackled in a white paper on defence and national security to be delivered in March 2008.
French newspaper Le Monde quoted an official source as saying Paris could use a NATO summit in Bucharest next year to raise the issue of France's return to NATO military command.
Defence expert Bruno Tertrais said such a move "would mark a major political break with France's foreign policy since 1967."
"The simplistic way of looking at this is to say: we have a pro-American president so we are going to join NATO again," he said, arguing that the option was seen in Paris as a way to boost European defence projects.
Weighing the "pros and cons" of a closer relationship with NATO, Morin said France could increase its "influence" on NATO military operations, "usefully steer" the alliance's transformation, and reap the "benefits" in terms of command posts.
On the downside, Morin said France "must not dismiss" the risk of a "weakening of our international position, which could appear more aligned" -- reflecting the view that Paris' independent stance gives it strategic clout.
France's position as relative outsider has not stopped it taking part in major missions, including NATO deployments to the Balkans in the 1990s, or currently as part of the NATO-led force in Afghanistan.
But Paris' decision to remain outside the military command has also been criticised for slowing missions down, because of the need to devise add-on arrangements for France whenever the alliance acts.