The French Government’s Vision of NATO
In order to determine the current importance of NATO for the French government, it is important to analyse the latest White Paper on Defense and National Security, which was published by Francois Hollande’s government in 2013. The issues covered are the new political landscape France has to evolve in, the strategic priorities, France role in NATO and the EU, how and with which tools to realize those goals.
The White Paper clearly states that France acknowledges the importance of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance as both sides of the Ocean are linked by history and common values. NATO thus gathers Europe and North America around common objectives, including collective defense on which France also depends on for its defence and security. The official stance on the reintegration into the Integrated Military Structures explains the importance of the gesture which was a natural one. France has, according to the White Paper, retrieved its “rightful place” in the Alliance. As a founding member and one the biggest contributors, France now holds the power it deserves considering these two elements.
France and International Organizations
The French government sees its engagement in both NATO and the EU as indispensable in order to attain its strategic goals and ensure its security. Three possible alternatives are explored in the White Paper, one where France would isolate itself and only serve its vital interests; one where France hands its defence responsibilities to NATO and the USA; and one where France only focuses on the European defence project. All these options however come with obstacles, like the country’s involvement in the international fora, France’s perceived need to acknowledge NATO member countries’ specificities, and the numerous obstacles the EU is facing. From these three scenarios, we understand that France intends to divide its attention to the various defence organizations it is part of, namely the European Union, NATO, and the UN to advance collective security whilst still pushing for its own interests. It is continuously repeated throughout the part dedicated to NATO that all countries’ interests need to be recognized and taken into consideration. It can be assumed, given France’s scepticism towards the US-dominated Alliance that Paris intends to ensure that all members are being heard.
NATO, a strictly military organization
The prerogatives allocated to the Euro-Atlantic are thus based on a politico-military agenda as that is the sole purpose France will allow for the Alliance. More emphasis is put on the European Union as it has a more comprehensive scope. NATO will however be given prerogatives in terms of security challenges all the members are facing. Paris intends to use the Transatlantic Alliance following the principle of collective defence and stabilization operations. However, all actions should be taken in accordance with international law. Once again, the official stance emphasizes that France will not support all operations, but will do a case-by-case selection to ensure the compliance of the missions with Paris’s interests. This suggests that the French government is not willing to devote its political power to the Alliance, and still wishes to condition its participation to any mission. France’s support to NATO is not unconditional, and will probably never be. The reason stems from the country’s fear that by transferring all its military capacity to NATO, it would hand out its sovereignty to the Alliance, which is probably the biggest fear of the Nation. It is based on this fright that De Gaulle withdrew France from the IMSs in 1966. Fifty years later, the concerns remain.
While insisting on the need for the Alliance to reinforce its military capacities, increase the joint exercises in order to offer an appropriate response to the new international climate, the French government still emphasizes the country’s independence. France is “determined to provide a joint defence against any armed Aggression”. The French government sends a very clear message to the Euro-Atlantic Alliance through the White Paper: France is fully back into NATO, but it does not change anything. France is in the seat of command but it does not mean that Paris will abide with all of the Alliance’s demands. In times of peace, the French military will work toward interoperability to ensure the effectiveness of the missions when deployed. In times of crisis, the French government will still decide whether it is in the country’s interest to get involved. Plus, it is made clear that nuclear independence needs to be respected in times of peace in a deterrence strategy.
Reintegration: opportunity to increase France’s influence
The reintegration into the IMSs stirred vivid criticism in France on the basis that it was perceived as annihilating France’s long effort at ensuring its political independence. However, as stated by Hubert Védrine, times have changed since De Gaulle’s era. The Cold War is over and traditional warfare is not the norm anymore. Plus, relations with the United States are no longer the same. The factors that pushed France out, such as the inflexibility of Lyndon Johnson, the Vietnam war and the graduate response, are long gone. In response to the critics, especially coming from the political class, an assessment of the impact of France’s newly-retrieved position in NATO was necessary. Requested by the President of the Republic, Hubert Védrine, former French Minister of Foreign Affairs, was requested in November 2012 to issue a report on the consequences of France’s full reintegration to NATO. The report findings were integrated into the 2013 White Paper.
Integration as an opportunity
The report focused on the impact, and not on the possibility of undoing what Sarkozy had put in place. This shows that another withdrawal is off the table. Leaving the Alliance again would not make any sense and would only put strains on France’s relations with the USA, Germany and Europe. France has a role in the Transatlantic Alliance, a position that was never questioned. However, despite its membership, French interests still needs to be voiced. Védrine emphasizes that, even if one disagrees with the reintegration into the MIS, France will not back down, and that the most should be made out of this new situation. Paris is fully integrated into NATO, which should not be looked at as a defeat, but as a new opportunity to promote the French point of view. The worst case would be to remain passive in face of this new paradigm (Vedrine, 2013). The former minister therefore advocates for a more ambitious approach to the Alliance. Being represented at the MIS is to be used as an opportunity to advance France’s focal goals, and oppose what cannot be accepted. France therefore needs to implement a strategy that would make the advantages of reintegrating the military command outweigh its drawbacks. Paris needs to change its whole approach vis-a-vis NATO: the Alliance must be integrated into the political discourse and career paths within NATO offered to French officers.
France needs to adopt a pragmatic approach to NATO: the reintegration into the MISs is a real opportunity. The official stance on that issue states:
“Our country will retain its identity and its autonomy, likewise its capacity to assume its place in command and wield influence over planning, policy and strategy. This vision, coordinated with its project for Europe, will allow it to retain its freedom of decision and action while at the same time contributing to the allies’ joint effort and solidarity. It also intends to play a very active role in the process of overhauling NATO’s means of action.”
Result of the reintegration
The effective results of the reintegration are however mitigated. On the case of Afghanistan, French commandment did not manage to impose its viewpoint on the American generals who lead this case. France was only able to inform the Alliance of their withdrawal agenda (Vedrine, 2013). The impact of the military commander positions given to French generals is also less important than the title would suggest. Although they have been given high-ranked positions, the most important decision-making roles will remain in American hands (ibid.). This needs to be nuanced as holding key commanding positions provides the concerned country with a certain prestige.
On the positive side, France counts on the consensus voting method to make its opinion count. It offers Paris the potential to block decisions if necessary. By reintegration the institutions of command, France has increased its position by being allowed to have a say in the decisions. The French now rely on this newly-retrieved potential to advance the role of the European pillar, by constraining NATO to its military role and expanding the EU’s.
The reintegration of France must be accepted by the French political class. It must be understood that Sarkozy has not given the country’s influence away, but finished a process that his predecessors had started. Considering that France would not benefit from stepping back out of NATO, the government must make the most of this relatively new situation by grasping all it has to offer. France has retrieved the possibility to have a say in the planning processes and exert its influence that way.