A Sarkozy spin as France rejoins NATO command

Posted in Europe | 01-Jul-08 | Author: John Vinocur| Source: International Herald Tribune

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (2ndR) and France's army Chief of Staff Jean-Louis Georgelin (R) visit Creil military airbase, northern Paris.

PARIS: When Nicolas Sarkozy brings France back into NATO's unified command next year, he will want to celebrate it as a triumph for Europe's own defense identity.

It's a very French spin on a step that more meaningfully signifies that the alliance, so often buried, is alive and kicking, and that Sarkozy, 42 years after Charles de Gaulle's decision to pull out of NATO's integrated military structure, thinks there's no more profit in France being seen as a reflex antagonist of the United States on issues like Iran, the Middle East, Russia and China.

The world ought to notice. Even if Sarkozy, out of domestic political considerations, must write his own Franco-French account of his country's new wisdom.

On France's motivation, Sarkozy states a plain truth: "Our position, outside the military command, sustains mistrust about the object of our European ambition." To that, he adds a very French judgment: "A France taking its full place in NATO would be an alliance that would be giving a greater place to Europe."

In fact, more than anyone might have thought a few months ago, there are contradictions and problems appearing now that, without fundamentally endangering France's reintegration, could turn the process into a slog.

France is going to be very hard-pressed to explain what that European defense identity - which Sarkozy so much wanted to emphasize as the condition for his embrace of NATO - is or can become while the French hold the European Union's agenda-setting presidency for the next six months.

New facts can only make it increasingly difficult in practical terms to demonstrate growth in European capabilities, expenditure and resolve.

Specifically, Irish voters' rejection of the Lisbon Treaty on EU reorganization disables a measure called "structured permanent cooperation" that would have allowed groups of countries among the 27 members to make advances in terms of their military capacities.

The effect is to remove a vehicle for new hard-power commitments within a Europe long bent on convincing itself soft power was all it needed, and where only two countries (Britain and Turkey) will actually increase their military budgets next year.

This difficulty puts France in a doubly awkward position.

On the one hand, while the United States says it sees eye to eye with the French on developing European defense, the new circumstances can't facilitate the Americans' openly stated expectation "that France will lead an effort" during its presidency to prod Europe into greater investment in greater capabilities.

Instead, some Americans now say they don't have a sense of what a refashioned European Defense and Security Policy could produce in real terms.

At the same time, since France cannot point to a Europe committed by treaty to expanded European military capacities, Sarkozy is likely to have a harder time at home fending off his critics from the left and the anti-American Gaullist right wing who cast the return to NATO not as a plus for Europe but as an exchange of French independence for American domination.

According to Pierre Lellouche, a Gaullist who was involved in writing Sarkozy's campaign platform on defense, "It's indispensable that Sarkozy present the return in parallel with the development of a European defense identity. Without it, there's a potential domestic cold shower here."

The signals coming from Paris have become garbled in every direction.

Although Europe has talked about generalized 2 percent increases in yearly military expenditures, it appears French spending will be below that target.

While the French talk about the necessity of updating Europe's security strategy to deal with new threats around the world, Sarkozy has in fact put off a decision on building a second French aircraft carrier. It was described by Le Monde as "a very political way of softly laying the project in its grave."

France could not have chosen a worse juncture. The old naval truism that one aircraft carrier is no aircraft carrier at all pertains: in the six years since its launch, the nuclear carrier Charles de Gaulle, according to one accounting, has been in activity less than half the time.

With this, France insists it won't participate in NATO's Nuclear Planning Group or have any of its troops under NATO command in time of peace. In Sarkozy's words, "making de Gaulle's principles my own," French atomic arms "will remain strictly national."

As far as European capabilities go, France is talking about the creation of a deployable European force of 60,000, a 10-year-old plan that has never come close to realization.

And more: for home consumption, France plays down into a no-big-deal attitude any sense of a qualitative change in its cooperation with NATO by stressing its current participation in NATO-led actions in the Balkans and Afghanistan. But it argues simultaneously and contradictorily that there should be a separate European headquarters command in Brussels.

Unfortunately, the separate command notion sounds a lot like an attempt by Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schröder in 2003 to set up an exclusively European planning installation in NATO's margins. Thérèse Delpech, one of the authors of a new French defense white paper, insists this is a misinterpretation of a French desire for a gradual increase in a European planning staff, but for the British the issue remains in play.

The sum of these complications are of sufficient size that one Brussels estimate figures that work on arrangements involving a French return will continue beyond a NATO summit meeting scheduled for April 2009 and into 2010.

Still, nothing presupposes issues that would block France's reintegration. The problem is that the French are experiencing some inconsistency in fitting themselves into the NATO mold.

At this point, the exercise - from France's point of view, a demonstration of team-playing instincts firm enough to justify a claim to European leadership - would profit from more NATO and fewer French concerns.