France in NATO: Why It Matters

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has responded to critics of his decision to return France fully to NATO by downplaying the significance of the plan. Sarkozy has argued that France’s full “reintegration” into the military command structure of the 26-member alliance, after an absence of more than 40 years, is little more than a formality, especially considering that France already works closely with NATO on many levels. But there is probably far more to Sarkozy’s decision than he is letting on.


Although in practical terms full French membership in NATO will have only a slight impact on the alliance in the immediate future, the symbolism of the move is enormous: In what is arguably the most significant change in French foreign policy in nearly 50 years, Sarkozy is shifting his country’s famously independent defense policy in a decidedly Atlanticist direction. By doing so, he is sending the message that France is strategically aligned with the United States.

But pro-NATO skeptics are not so sure. They suspect that Sarkozy sees France’s full re-entry into NATO as the best way to increase French influence within the alliance in order to “Europeanize” it, while at the same time building an independent European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), a long-cherished ambition of many French elites. In other words, France will now be perfectly placed to destroy the Alliance from within, skeptics say.

Sarkozy’s plan to reintegrate France fully into NATO’s military command reverses a decision made by President Charles de Gaulle in 1966, when he withdrew France from the Alliance’s command structure in order to preserve France’s strategic independence from the United States. Sarkozy says that that position, which has remained an article of faith for French elites of all political stripes for more than four decades, is now outdated.

In a hard-hitting speech at the École Militaire in Paris on March 11, Sarkozy argued that France’s full return to NATO was long overdue. “Our strategic thinking can’t remain frozen when the world around us has completely changed,” he said, adding: “The world has changed and we must change with it.” He dismissed as “lies” accusations from his political enemies that he was betraying de Gaulle’s legacy and sacrificing French independence to the United States.

“A nation alone is a nation with no influence,” he said of France’s self-imposed exile from NATO’s military command. He also said it was logical that France, which is the fourth-biggest provider of troops and money to NATO, should reinforce its growing influence in NATO by retaking its place in the integrated military command structure that plans and conducts operations.

“We don’t have a single military post of responsibility. We don’t have our say when the Allies define the military objectives and means for the operations in which we participate,” Sarkozy said. “In concluding this process, France will be stronger and more influential. Why? Because those who are absent are always wrong. Because France must co-direct, rather than submit.”

Indeed, Sarkozy’s main argument for rejoining NATO is that, given its current level of engagement, France must have a voice at the top in order to defend its own interests. In recent years, France has gradually rejoined the political and operational elements of the Alliance; it now sits on 36 of NATO’s 38 committees. But it has remained absent from the permanent military command structure, which means that it does not participate in the strategic planning that goes into operational deployments. Sarkozy says this must change.

But Sarkozy also has other motives for reaching out to NATO. Full membership of the Alliance will, for example, enhance French military interoperability with the United States and other NATO allies, thereby contributing to the badly needed modernization of French forces. Moreover, Sarkozy hopes that full NATO membership will provide the French defense industry with access to the mammoth US defense procurement market, which accounts for almost half of global defense expenditures.

To be sure, Sarkozy says that building an autonomous European defense capability remains an “absolute priority.” Indeed, he believes that if France fully rejoins NATO, he can boost ESDP by eliminating suspicions among NATO allies that his main motivation is to build a rival to NATO and thus undermine American influence in Europe. “Our position, outside the military command, sustains mistrust about the object of our European ambition,” Sarkozy said, but then adding: “A France taking its full place in NATO would be an alliance that would be giving a greater place to Europe.”

To achieve this end, Sarkozy knows that he especially needs to be able to convince Britain of the genuineness of his pro-Atlanticist leanings. Britain, of course, is central to building a credible European defense capability, but up until now, it has resisted closer European defense cooperation because of its deep distrust of French motives. Sarkozy seems to be making a bet that Britain will no longer have suspicions about a country that is a fully fledged member of NATO.

Most observers, however, say that a credible European defense capability remains a distant dream. One problem is the lack of money: Most European countries do not even meet NATO’s recommended defense spending level of 2 percent of GDP. Another problem involves lack of will: France’s decade-old plan for creating a deployable European force of 60,000, for example, has never come close to being realized. In this context, Sarkozy may have concluded that, for the foreseeable future at least, NATO offers the only serious structure to guarantee European security.

Sarkozy has won some important concessions from the United States, one of them being that Washington drop its opposition to ESDP as a quid pro quo for France’s rejoining NATO. At the 45th Munich Security Conference in February, US Vice President Joe Biden declared that America would “warmly welcome” France’s full return to NATO and added that “we also support the further strengthening of European defense” and an “increased role for the European Union in preserving peace and security.”

The Americans have also given in to Sarkozy’s demands for a more prominent French role in the Alliance. French Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that France would take over leadership of Allied Command Transformation, a key NATO command post in Norfolk, Virginia, where the alliance’s long-term strategy is discussed. France will also lead the Allied Joint Command Lisbon, which is responsible for NATO’s Rapid Reaction Force and its satellite reconnaissance system.

But France’s return to NATO also has the potential to increase tensions with the United States and other NATO members like Britain. For example, French Defense Minister Hervé Morin says that France rejects a global role for NATO and that the Alliance should remain Eurocentric. He also says that Russia should be consulted before the alliance expands any further. Those positions could put France on a collision course with the White House, which has bigger plans for NATO and has criticized France and Germany for their deference to Russia on questions of European security.

Meanwhile, NATO allies have managed to avoid the first major spat with Sarkozy by giving in to his demands for a top table seat in front of the television cameras for celebrations marking the 60th anniversary of the Alliance, which will be held on April 3-4. Sarkozy, who had threatened to boycott the event in case his demands were not met, is expected to use the occasion to officially announce France’s full return to the Alliance.


An abridged version was published by World Politics Review on March 20, 2009

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group


Count me among those "pro-Nato skeptics" who see this as part of a plan to "destroy the alliance from within", in the specific sense of "undermine American influence in Europe", which is of course also the aim of the alliance's original enemy (and reason-for-being), i.e Russia.   It is not in the interest of France today that the alliance be formally disbanded, but it is in its interest to maintain access to US military know-how and to help direct US efforts in the defense of Europe. Hence, Sarkozy's move makes sense (from France's perspective) and illustrates that he is cunning and smart....

@ Frank Lee

I am afraid that you are too optimistic from an American isolationist perspective.  This French move is not about "getting the US out of NATO", but rather about gaining influence for France and co-directing American efforts (deterrence through military presence) to defend Europe.

However, all of this may be moot because of two likely developments: (a) the rest-of-the-world is going to claim much more of America's attention than Europe in the foreseeable future, and (b) the US 'body politic' is probably entering a much more isolationist phase (despite temporary Obamania at home and abroad).