France considers step back into full NATO embrace

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BRUSSELS, Sep 13 (Reuters) NATO is ready to discuss bringing France back fully into the fold after signals from Paris it may reverse its decision 41 years ago to quit the alliance's military structures, officials said today.

President Nicolas Sarkozy set the tone with a keynote foreign policy speech last month insisting NATO was no rival to France's ambition of a robust European Union defence capability.

Speculation that Paris is ready to reverse the 1966 decision by General Charles de Gaulle to pull out of NATO's integrated military command mounted after Defence Minister Herve Morin said on Tuesday it was now time to ''clarify'' the French NATO role.

''Any initiative by France to get more involved and to get back into the integrated military structure could only be welcomed by NATO,'' NATO spokesman James Appathurai said, stressing any move would have to come from France.

''This would be a sovereign decision,'' said another official.

''There will be no decision until someone, and that someone would have to be France, puts it on the table.'' In a move that has cast a long shadow over France's presence in the transatlantic alliance, de Gaulle on March 10, 1966, told allies he was pulling personnel out of NATO military headquarters in a row over command arrangements.

France had refused to integrate its air defences into the NATO system or allow the United States to station nuclear arms in France.

The dispute triggered the shifting of NATO's headquarters from Paris to its current home in Brussels.

France partially reintegrated under President Jacques Chirac in the 1990s, reintroducing some 120 officers to military commands in Belgium and the United States, and taking part in meetings of national defence chiefs and joint NATO exercises.

But it remains absent from NATO forums such as the Defence Planning Committee and the Nuclear Planning Group in a way which Morin said left France punching below its weight in the body.

''France is indeed in NATO and is a good pupil,'' Morin told a defence event in Toulouse on Tuesday. He noted France's status as a major troop contributor to NATO operations and as one of the few allies who fulfil alliance targets for defence spending.

''But we are not getting the full benefit, notably in terms of influence and command posts,'' he said.

LOSS OF FACE? Morin noted possible drawbacks, ranging from the cost to France in supplying more personnel to a potential loss of face internationally if France was no longer perceived as a ''stand-alone'' military power in its own right.

Alliance diplomats note France has just taken the command of the 16,000-strong NATO-led peace force in Kosovo and has in the past played a command role in its larger Afghan peacekeeping operation.

France could seek assurances from allies -- not just the United States but more Atlanticist countries ranging from Britain to Poland -- that efforts to build a proper EU defence capability would not suffer as a result of it rejoining NATO.

Concrete steps may have to await publication in March of a wide-ranging ''White Book'' on French defence sector reform being prepared by a committee under defence expert Jean-Claude Mallet.

Mallet is tentatively scheduled to visit NATO headquarters for talks with Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer next Thursday and alliance diplomats note that the publication of the White Book comes a month before a NATO summit in Bucharest.

''Things are going to move. When, and how, is not clear but the debate is going to happen,'' said one envoy.


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