Garimella Subramanium

Paris: French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s recent call for greater engagement in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is being backed both within and outside the political establishment.

Mr. Sarkozy wants France, a founder member of the 1949 Western military alliance, to return to the body’s integrated military structure it quit in 1966 and his Defence Minister recently said the current ambiguous position must be rectified.

The country continues to provide troops for the peace-keeping operations and recently took command of the mission in Kosovo.

Asked to comment on the implications for the European Union (EU) of the French leadership’s perception, Mr. Jean-Dominique Giuliani, president of the Robert Schuman Foundation, France’s leading EU think-tank, exuded confidence that the partnership would usher in a European NATO, where France’s clout would enhance.

He also pointed to the greater dependence on the NATO umbrella partly on account of the meagre defence expenditure in many EU states, especially its Nordic members. Washington has long emphasised the need for EU states to step up defence spending and closely integrate their research and military operations.

Defence cooperation

A senior official from the French Foreign Ministry emphasised that a stronger NATO was compatible with growing European security and defence cooperation as 19 of the EU’s 27 States were also its members.

Mr. Sarkozy has been suggesting ever since his election that France review the policy of Charles de Gaulle to withdraw from the military structure.

This was then justified on grounds of upholding French autonomy in foreign policy. Once keeping a distance from the U.S. was seen as affirmation of national sovereignty.

After four decades, such a stance is now being viewed as a denial of France’s legitimate influence in the international arena.

The shift is striking given that as recently as in November 2006, Paris had blocked U.S. plans to involve Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zeeland in broader cooperation against terrorism.

France had then viewed the move as an attempt to expand the U.S. influence and a dilution of the NATO’s trans-Atlantic character though NATO operates a Partnership for Peace Programme with 20 countries, including many from the former Soviet bloc.