A Divergent Approach to the Alliance
France reintegration into the NATO Integrated Military Structures in 2009 did not come as a total surprise as France had been moving closer to the IMSs for decades. François Mitterrand, followed by former Jacques Chirac, had previously attempted to fully reintegrate NATO, without success as the circumstances did not seem right at the time. The reintegration, announced by Nicolas Sarkozy
therefore did not mark a break in French relations with the Alliance, it only acted as a natural result to the process in place. However, the reintegration did not mean that France would submit itself to all of NATO’s demands, and what Paris had established as his exceptions would remain. These include: “(1) France’s nuclear weapons would remain under national control; (2) France would maintain control over the deployment of French troops in any military operations; (3) France would not put its troops under NATO control in peacetime”. Beyond those three elements that were excluded from the negotiations all along the “creeping reintegration” Mitterrand had initiated, other elements set France aside from the rest of the members.
First, it is indispensable to mention Paris’s strong support of the development of a European defence structure. L’Europe de la défence was one of the reasons that pushed De Gaulle to withdraw from NATO’s IMSs (more details in the next part).
Second, France has always advocated for its ideological independence, hence its will to not submit its troops to NATO in time of peace. Due to its colonial heritage and the strong ties Paris still holds with the African continent, even if NATO is at peace, the French military forces might however be deployed in somewhere. The several uprisings and security threats in Africa in 2014 have seen a quick response by the French army, posted in various African countries. Keeping in mind that a crisis might erupt in France’s sphere of influence at any time, the country has adapted its strategic approach in order to make NATO missions last as little as possible. When the crisis emerged in Libya in 2011, where part of the French air force was mobilized in North Africa, “36,000 French troops were deployed in foreign territory […] (Afghanistan, Ivory Coast, Haiti, Lebanon)”. NATO is therefore not the first priority for France.
Third, as aforementioned, France still counts many interest in Africa, on the basis of which the European country does not hesitate to deploy its forces. However, Africa is not a central topic for NATO, which only aims at stabilizing the region in order to ensure peace via collective security. This can be exemplified by NATO’s support to the African Union which aims at reinforcing the regional organization which in turn will take care of its own stability. France and NATO therefore have different visions on Africa. Plus, according to the former, Africa should not be a prerogative of NATO, as it is a responsibility of the European Union, and especially of the former colonial powers. Mali, the Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire have recently been at the center of France’s military operations. Since France and the Euro-Atlantic Association do not pay the same attention to Africa, we can expect France to always keep some distances with NATO in order to maintain its freedom of action to act in its former colonies. NATO has been active in Africa, but never to the extent of France: whenever a crisis seems to emerge, the French government deploys its own troops before calling for international support (if at all). This can be exemplified by the cases of Mali, Cote d’Ivoire and of the Central African Republic.
Fourth, in addition to the difference in focus NATO and France have, and despite the reintegration, the French still show reluctance to fully trust the Alliance. Due to the Gaullist rhetoric that has dictated Paris’s relations with NATO for almost half a century, the French remain reluctant to fully embracing the Alliance and its principles. The nuclear independence is a key element as it enables France to be protected even if the American umbrella would not effectively work. This was an issue of disagreement during the Cold War as the European Allies had no guarantee Washington would protect them in case of provocation by the Soviet Bloc. By maintaining their nuclear force, France ensures the protection of Europe by Europe, and therefore reduces the dependence on the USA for the continent. France tries to avoid the pitfall in which many new NATO members have fallen: counting on America’s military superiority, many have reduced their military capacities which weaken them and increases their dependence on others’ will. Plus, France has always been sceptical of NATO’s mission enlargement that comprised political and civilian instruments, as the Euro-Atlantic Alliance was considered as a sole military organization. By still advertising its differences, France expects to maintain its exceptionalisme and be its own decider.
Finally, it is necessary to address France’s unique working methods, be it negotiation style and attention to NATO’s decisions. The French representatives to NATO would often strongly oppose any proposition that went against Paris’s interests, even if the disagreement stems from a detail in the proposal. Hoping that their voice would be heard and their interests taken into consideration, the French delegation seems well-known for being opinionated and difficult to bargain with. France opposed a purely financial investment in NATO’s AGS project, on the basis that NATO should support the French military industry. Plus, in order to make sure that all decisions fit with France’s interests, a very effective bureaucracy has been put in place at the MoD and MFA. “This has been developed due to a NATO practice whereby which a country that does not respond to a proposition within a certain time frame, is considered to be supporting it”. Because France could not let any controversial issue slip through its control, all initiatives are carefully analysed, especially those submitted by the USA.
Despite the strong commitment numbers suggest, Paris remains somewhat detached from NATO, maintaining its interests and defence capabilities separate from the Alliance. The French government is playing a difficult game of not compromising on their interests while ensuring their influence on the global scene. France’s engagement in NATO can therefore still be assessed as lukewarm as the country does not fully hinge on the Alliance for its defense and security like other members do.