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Are the French Looking to Sling Lead for NATO?

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France is expected to soon rejoin NATO's military command after a 40-year absence. The French government withdrew from the NATO military structure in 1966 (although remaining a member of NATO's political-policy structure). France's new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, has placed strong emphasis on France's relationship with the United States. And, he recently declared that he would soon undertake "very strong" initiatives on European defense and give France "its full place" in NATO.

Subsequently, Defense Minister Herve Morin said that he was "convinced that European defense will make no progress unless France changes its political behaviorwithin NATO."

Then-general Dwight D. Eisenhower established NATO's Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) as the principal command of NATO's military forces in Paris in early 1951. The headquarters remained in the Paris area until in February 1966, when French President Charles de Gaulle stated that the changed world order had "stripped NATO of its justification" for military integration and that France was therefore justified in re-asserting its sovereignty over French territory. Consequently, all allied forces within France's borders would have to come underFrench control by April 1969.

Soon afterward, France stated that it was withdrawing from the NATO military structure and that the NATO Headquarters, the NATO Defence College, and SHAPE and its subordinate headquarters must leave French territory by April 1967. (NATO Headquarters was based in Paris, in the Palais de l'OTAN, currently occupied by the Universit Paris-Dauphine.)

Subsequently, NATO's military headquarters were relocated to Casteau, north of the Belgian city of Mons.

Despite having withdrawn from the NATO military structure, French naval forces conducted bilateral exercises with other NATO navies, including the U.S. Navy. And, certain U.S.-French weapon agreements were undertaken, especially for upgrading American-built tanker aircraft and ship-launched missiles. The French joined other NATO forces in the Bosnia conflict as well as the 1991 assault on Iraq to free Kuwait, which Iraqi forces had taken over the previous summer.

Although the previous French government was not supportive of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, the French did send forces to Afghanistan. However, earlier this year France withdrew its 200-strong special forces from Afghanistan; those ground troops were participating in the U.S anti-terror operation code-named Enduring Freedom. The then-Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie said, "There is a general reorganization of our [troops]." However, the 1,100 French troops engaged in the separate, NATO-led International Security Assistance Force remain in Afghanistan.

U.S. forces have also worked with French forces in Djibouti in northeast Africa. (Djibouti is a small, impoverished republic just north of the Horn of Africa on the strait of Bab el-Mandeb. It is bordered by Ethiopia, Somalia, and Eritrea, an area of great political and economic turmoil.)

The United States has used the French military-air base in Djibouti for several combat and support operations in the region. Indeed, the case can be made thatdespite its public stance?the French have been most helpful to several U.S. military activities.

-- Norman Polmar

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