France touts its role in NATO and ties to U.S.

Posted in Europe | 10-Feb-05 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

French Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie (R) welcomes NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer (L) at Nice airport, February 9, 2005.
Security and intelligence efforts cited

NICE France and the United States are stepping up cooperation in security and intelligence areas, with the French defense minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, saying Wednesday before an informal meeting of her counterparts in NATO that "we are ready to play a more active role in Iraq."

France is pulling out all the stops for this meeting, the first time since 1983 that it has acted as host to such a regular session of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 1997 France acted as host to a Russia-NATO summit meeting in Paris.

The road from the airport to the Nice city center is plastered with posters praising France's role in NATO and showing pictures of young French soldiers involved in peacekeeping missions. And Alliot-Marie has given several television and radio interviews spelling out France's contribution to NATO and its importance for the trans-Atlantic relationship.

Alliot-Marie's interviews and the French decision to be the host of this meeting signal a major public relations exercise to show that France, which spearheaded the opposition in Europe to the U.S.-led war against Iraq, wants to put aside these disputes.

Despite the red carpet treatment for NATO, France - which pulled its troops out of the NATO military command in 1966 but has remained a NATO member - is still unwilling to join any NATO missions to train Iraqi military personnel either inside or outside Iraq.

Instead, Alliot-Marie said on Wednesday that France was willing to train police officers in Qatar on a bilateral basis. A French official said that Paris had approached the Iraqi interim government with the offer but that so far it had received no reply.

The U.S. defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, is expected, however, to ask the 26-nation alliance to play a much greater role in Iraq as a collective organization, particularly in providing security to any training missions it will carry out.

"He is not going to get what he wants," a German official said.

Apart from France and Germany, such NATO countries as Spain, Greece, Belgium and Luxembourg have said they will not participate in the NATO training plans but have repeated that they will not veto them.

France's own intentions for becoming more involved in Iraq overshadow how Paris and Washington have in other ways been working much more closely together. This is in stark contrast to the polemics and criticisms that characterized the relationship in 2003, when President Jacques Chirac of France openly opposed President George W. Bush's decision to attack Iraq.

The cooperation involves military and intelligence sharing, diplomats said. Inside NATO, France has been increasingly active in its peacekeeping missions in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan, where, in August 2003, NATO took over the International Security Assistance Force headquartered in Kabul.

This move was made despite the many objections by France to NATO's conducting peacekeeping missions "out of area" - beyond its traditional base of Europe - because it feared the United States would use NATO for its own security and strategic interests.

Yet as Alliot-Marie said Wednesday, a French general now commands the NATO forces in Afghanistan as well as in Kosovo.

France is also one of the lead countries in NATO's rapid response force aimed at deploying several thousand troops as quickly as possible for combat missions.

"We are the second largest contributor in military terms to NATO and the fifth largest in terms of financial support," Alliot-Marie said.

Defense experts said France's involvement in NATO often appears at odds with France's attempts to create a stronger European defense and security policy.

This has led some U.S. officials into believing that a stronger European defense policy would become so independent that it would break the NATO alliance.

"The relationship is complementary," Alliot-Marie said.

Antonio Missiroli, a NATO expert at the Institute for Security Studies in Paris, said, "There is a gap between the rhetoric and the practice of what France does because this reflects the old differences between the Defense Ministry and Foreign Ministry.

"The French military have their boots on the ground and have to be pragmatic while the Foreign Ministry has traditionally pursued a Gaullist view that wants a Europe, depending on the issues, more independent from the U.S."

The Balkan wars of the 1990s showed to France and to Britain how most of NATO's European members lacked essential logistics, intelligence and communications capabilities to stop the fighting.

"France saw how the European countries could not function together as military forces and how Europe and the U.S. were simply not capable of operating militarily together," Missiroli said. The need for greater cooperation was one reason why France insisted on sending a general to Norfolk, Virginia, where NATO is working closely with U.S. forces to modernize its structures.

France and the United States are also working closely together on intelligence, particularly since the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington.

"We do it quietly," said a French official who asked to remain anonymous.

"We had to work on our intelligence very hard during the 1990s, when there was a wave of terrorist attacks on French targets from Algerian Islamists. We have the linguists and we have the expertise. And the U.S. knows that."