Back Into NATO

Last Wednesday, before the École Militaire, Nicolas Sarkozy promised what on paper seemed rather radical: the French armed forces would be re-integrated into NATO after an absence of 43 years.  Then, the redoubtable Charles De Gaulle gave US President Dwight Eisenhower a shuddering call that US forces would have to leave French soil, and that France would be leaving an alliance it had helped create.  Did that mean, inquired Eisenhower, the removal of US dead from French soil as well?  (The Parisians, in the popular Gaullist narrative, spontaneously liberated themselves, sans any Allied contribution.)

Sarkozy’s argument is supposedly based on effectiveness, and was one already foreshadowed in the white paper on French defense and security published in 2008.  “We send soldiers to the field, and we don’t participate in the committees that define strategy.  And all that of our own free will, because we exclude ourselves.  NATO is the only international organisation in the world where France doesn’t try to be present and influential.”  One senses a feeling of not merely wounded, but emasculated pride.  The French influence with NATO is that of the eunuch: they know how its done, see it done, but can’t (in this case won’t ) do it themselves.

The debates raged in Parliament this Tuesday, instigated by a nervous Prime Minister François Fillon, keen to head off a potential revolt in Sarkozy’s camp.  The outcome was more or less a foregone conclusion.  Inevitability cast a certain shadow over proceedings.  Resistance was strong, but ultimately futile.

Socialist leader Martine Aubry, vocal from the start, denounced suggestions that France needed to be fully involved in the operational nature of NATO.  “Atlanticism,” she observed, was “becoming an ideology.”  Where to, with France’s independent judgment, however sound, now?  Some argued that France, had it been in NATO in 2003, could not have provided the necessary alternative and vocal front against US-led unilateralism over Iraq.  Such counterfactuals are interesting, but say little.

In truth, the French perspective won’t alter too much, only affected perhaps by a bloodying of the boots in Afghanistan along with their fellow misguided allies.  The military mandarins were simply keen to abandon the Cold War impress that had governed French military doctrine for decades.  Instead, current wisdom favours a more mobile army and that now overly familiar term “asymmetrical warfare.”  Other things will remain ‘independent’: the nuclear arsenal will remain in French hands, and French foreign policy towards Africa.

There is, however, something stinging in the symbolism of re-integration.  François Bayrou, who spends time occupying the centrist high ground of French politics, senses a worthless forfeiture of French power.  Former Minister of Defence Jean-Pierre Chevènement employs cultural theory to condemn the Atlantic alliance: “NATO offers an Occidentalist vision of the world. Why should France be identified in such simplistic terms?”

A stinging, and somewhat instructive piece, came from the pen of Hubert Védrine in Le Monde.  “At no point have the Europeans shown an appetite for a truly European defence.  They don’t want to devote more money to defence.”  NATO remains a somewhat doomed venture, to be scuttled and ignored, rather than enhanced with French involvement.

Whether this President has now taken that fatal step, undermining French independence, will have to be seen beyond the daily operations and command games the alliance will play.  The policy hacks and observers from across the Atlantic have been showing a certain glee.  “In effect,” argues Michael Moran of the Council on Foreign Relations, “the era of ‘French exceptionalism’ is over” (, March 12, 2009).  This remains to be seen.  In war, differences are often revealed, and shed blood is often thicker than evidence.  That will be symbolic enough.

BINOY KAMPMARK was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. Email:


Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: