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Nicolas Sarkozy ignores enemy fire as he marches France back into Nato

Posted by seumasach on March 12, 2009

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11th March, 2009

Forty-three years after General de Gaulle threw American forces out of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, his political descendant, is expected to explain to a sceptical nation today why he is taking the country back into the core of the US-led Nato alliance.

Mr Sarkozy’s decision, outlined after his 2007 election and to be consummated at Nato’s 60th birthday summit next month, will restore France’s voice in the alliance command that de Gaulle expelled from its Paris headquarters in 1966, along with 100,000 French-based US personnel.

The French military are delighted. They look forward to raising their Nato command contingent from 100 to 800 and taking up the two top posts that Washington has allocated France: The Allied Command Transformation (ACT), the future strategy unit, in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Lisbon command, which is in charge of Nato’s rapid reaction force.

Rejoining Nato’s military structure would mean giving up “an element of our identity”, said François Bayrou, the centrist who came third in the 2007 presidential elections.

Dominique de Villepin, a former Gaullist Prime Minister, enemy of Mr Sarkozy and fan of Napoleon, says that “closing ourselves into the ‘Western family’ would be to shrink our country, a renunciation of our diplomatic calling”. President Chirac’s success in rallying the world against the US-led Iraq invasion would have been impossible if France had been a full Nato member, he said.

Younger French people may find it unimaginable but American forces were part of the landscape from 1944 to 1967, admired and envied, especially in the 29 base towns, where they cruised in exotic cars, lived luxuriously and taught local women to dance rock’n’roll. At Chateauroux 10 per cent of all marriages between 1951 and 1967 were between US servicemen and French women. The film star Gérard Depardieu has fond memories of a black American girlfriend of his teenage years.

In a curt letter to President Johnson on March 7, 1966, de Gaulle said that he was not only restoring sovereignty over defence but also recovering French soil and airspace by removing American forces and aircraft. Demonstrations by 20,000 French workers who were dependent on the US bases did not sway the father of France’s independent nuclear deterrent.

The Americans are not about to come back, although a detachment will turn up if Mr Sarkozy persuades President Obama to celebrate the restored alliance with a symbolic meeting at a D-Day landing beach in Normandy on April 2.

Mr Sarkozy’s move is stirring misgivings and hostility because it reverses the act that defined France’s sense of a special destiny, independent of US power and, during the Cold War, not being quite part of the Western camp. The Americans saw it at the time as a case of France having its US protection while eating its sovereign cake. According to Time magazine, De Gaulle’s “blow at the heart of the alliance” enabled France to benefit from Nato’s protection “and kick it too”.

In a speech in the École Militaire at Les Invalides, Mr Sarkozy will explain today the benefits for France of rejoining the integrated command. It will give French generals a seat at the planning table and allay suspicions of French efforts to promote an autonomous European defence system.

On the political front, however, critics say that Mr Sarkozy is renouncing an independent status that was followed by French presidents of all stripes since de Gaulle. Even members of his own Gaullist camp are accusing him of selling out a cherished heritage.

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