France and NATO: Joyeux Anniversaire?

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and French President Francois Hollande, March 2, 2015Champagne corks won’t be popping across Paris on April 4 to celebrate the seventh anniversary of France’s return, after a 43-year absence, to NATO’s military structures. These days, more pressing concerns – including terrorist threats at home, the spread of Daesh’s influence from Syria and Iraq to Libya and other parts of Africa, and Europe’s migrant and refugee crisis – preoccupy French national security officials and dominate the media. And as National Assembly deputies Gilbert Le Bris (Parti Socialiste) and Philippe Vitel (Les Républicains) recently observed in the introduction to their report to parliament: “NATO remains little known in our country, its detractors are still numerous, and it seemed, until recently, in search of identity and legitimacy.”1

Yet, there are good reasons for the French to mark the occasion.

Notwithstanding their note of caution, the 111-page report by Le Bris and Vitel reflects what has been a sea change in French attitudes toward the Alliance. Indeed, the authors begin with a detailed description of NATO’s evolution since 1949, explaining its strategic concepts, civil and military structures, operations, and partnerships. This “pedagogical dimension,” they readily acknowledge, is intended to rebut assertions that NATO represents the “vassalization of Europe” by the United States. (During 2007-9, some prominent Socialist personalities raised the specter of “vassalization” to criticize then President Nicolas Sarkozy’s decision to pursue NATO reintegration. Today, the term is mainly used by a few neo-Gaullist politicians and the far-right Front National party led by Marine Le Pen).

More importantly, the report’s assessment of France’s reintegration is strikingly positive. According to Le Bris and Vitel, thanks to the French general officers now serving in key NATO posts and 800 other French military and civilian personnel spread across its headquarters and agencies, their country has boosted its influence over NATO’s strategic vision, doctrine, planning, crisis management operations, exercises, capability development, and efforts to reform (and downsize) its staffs and structure.2 The authors also argue that France is “better placed” to promote its defense industrial interests, thanks in part to the presence in NATO staffs of some twenty personnel from the French defense ministry’s General Directorate for Armaments. Moreover, reintegration has facilitated “the deepening of our confident military relations with our closest allies, especially the United States. The U.S. support for our operations in Mali or Central Africa is also the direct result of habits of cooperation (developed) within NATO.”

Looking toward NATO’s July 8-9 Warsaw Summit, Le Bris and Vitel suggest an agenda for France that is broadly convergent with U.S. objectives. Among their principal concerns: preserving Alliance “cohesion” in the face of different threats along its Eastern (Russia) and Southern (Middle East and North Africa) flanks; pursuing the Readiness Action Plan decided at the September 2014 Wales Summit, with an emphasis on improved flexibility and responsiveness rather than permanent stationing of NATO troops in Eastern Europe; strengthening deterrence — including the Alliance’s “strategic nuclear deterrence culture,” which the authors fear “many allies have lost”; and ensuring that allies (including unnamed “free riders”) devote the forces and resources necessary to implement their summit decisions.

To be sure, Le Bris and Vitel acknowledge disappointments regarding France’s role in NATO. They suggest, for example, that for various reasons French military officials, diplomats, and industrialists have not taken full advantage of expanded opportunities offered by reintegration. They also note that France’s efforts to rejuvenate the European Union’s Common Security and Defense Policy in parallel with its NATO reintegration have fallen short due to the reticence of other EU member states. And their reservations regarding certain NATO approaches that have received strong U.S. backing – for example, establishing an integrated missile defense system to protect allied territory and populations – echo longstanding French government positions. Still, their verdict is clear: “Nearly seven years after reintegration…no one questions the suitability of this choice or wants to withdraw again…France is in its rightful place in the Alliance.”3

Another sign of deepening Franco-American defense cooperation is an agreement signed last summer between the chiefs of staff of the French and U.S. armies. Beginning in 2017, a French brigadier general will serve as deputy commander of a U.S. division, with a U.S. one-star serving as deputy commander of an equivalent French formation. Only the United Kingdom has a similar arrangement with the United States.

From an American perspective, this is all good news. France can be a difficult ally at times, but there’s little doubt that top U.S. officials and military commanders believe the Alliance and bilateral ties with our oldest ally are both stronger today as a result, either directly or indirectly, of French reintegration. For other allies, the success of this once controversial project should serve as a timely reminder — as they grapple with difficult issues of strategy, capabilities, and solidarity in advance of the Warsaw Summit — that NATO can adapt to new opportunities and threats.

But until that happens, hold the champagne.

Leo Michel is a non-resident senior fellow, Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security, Atlantic Council.

1. The report is based on extensive hearings and interviews with top French, NATO, and other foreign officials and prominent non-government experts. The Parti Socialiste is the largest group in the National Assembly and supports President Francois Hollande, while Les Républicains, the major conservative opposition party, is headed by former President Nicolas Sarkozy.
For example, since 2009 a French Air Force general has served as Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, one of NATO’s two strategic commands.
3. In fact, Marine Le Pen has called for such a withdrawal.

Image: Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and French President Francois Hollande, March 2, 2015 (photo: NATO)