BUCHAREST (Reuters) - In a move towards healing NATO’s oldest rift, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said on Thursday he will decide by the end of this year on France’s return to the alliance’s military command, which it quit in 1966.
Sarkozy told his first NATO summit he expected to take the decision at the end of France’s six-month presidency of the European Union in the second half of this year, when he wants to push for closer European defence integration.
“The European Union is going to enter a new phase of its existence with the Lisbon Treaty ... I reaffirm here France’s determination to pursue the process of renovating its relations with NATO,” Sarkozy told the meeting, according to a text of his speech released by his office.
“At the end of the French (EU) presidency the moment will have come to conclude this process and to take the necessary decisions for France to take its full place in NATO’s structures,” he said.
France has continued to work closely with NATO’s military hierarchy and has taken part in almost all of the alliance’s missions, but the decision is of huge political symbolism, reversing four decades of Gaullist “exceptionalism”.
Sarkozy thanked U.S. President George W. Bush for what he called his “vigorous encouragement” to building up European defence capacities and renovating the Atlantic Alliance.
General Charles de Gaulle withdrew French forces from NATO’s command in 1966 at the height of the Cold War and expelled the alliance’s headquarters from Paris and Fontainebleau in protest at what he saw as U.S. hegemony in Europe.
France’s decision to pursue a more independent foreign and defence policy still has many supporters at home today, and Sarkozy faces resistance from opposition Socialists and Communists and some hardline Gaullists.
His government had to defend itself in parliament this week after announcing it would send an additional battalion of several hundred troops to reinforce NATO’s fight against Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan.
In another symbolic step, Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel were to announce later on Thursday that they would jointly host NATO’s 60th anniversary summit next year in the eastern French city of Strasbourg and its German sister town of Kehl, just across the Rhine River.