For over sixty years, an ambivalent France sat at the center of the Alliance. For NATO to thrive in the decades ahead, it needs an energetic France to sustain its Atlanticist instincts. That is particularly important now that François Hollande has been elected as France’s new President. One of Nicolas Sarkozy’s most notable accomplishments as president was to strengthen France’s influence in Washington and to normalize the French role in the Alliance.

Hollande’s commitment to keep France within NATO’s integrated military command will be an important early commitment. The key question for France’s allies is whether France will continue to pursue its national interests working through the Alliance and in partnership with allies when appropriate, or revert to a strategy of distancing itself from NATO and the United States. An Atlanticist France does not, of course, mean Paris must always work through NATO; but it should seek to do so when partnering with the United States to respond to key global security issues.

The reintegration of France into the integrated military command in 2009 was a triumph that concluded two years of delicate negotiations between President Sarkozy and Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. In dramatic fashion, Sarkozy courageously overturned de Gaulle’s infamous March 1966 decision to weaken France’s defense commitment to NATO. Previous attempts at normalizing the France-NATO relationship had failed because of the politically sensitive position NATO occupies in French political life, as well as the hesitancy of other allies to make room for France within the integrated command.

Under Sarkozy’s presidency, France found that its national interests and fundamental global purpose can be pursued within NATO, rather than in opposition to the Alliance and the United States. The Libya campaign was the most effective demonstration of the benefit of France’s leadership in NATO. President Sarkozy demonstrated French international leadership during the Libyan uprising, putting Paris on the right side of the Arab uprisings, even though France and other allies were ill-prepared for the sustained nature of the operation. Paris’ first instinct was to advocate a French-led coalition of the willing to enforce UN Security Council Resolution 1973. The Elysée acceded to allied and partner requests that the operation be conducted under NATO auspices. Nevertheless, France found that by providing constructive leadership within the Alliance, it could both achieve its aims and enhance its international profile. Furthermore, the limited US role in Libya demonstrated that NATO must have European leadership, as well as American, to be truly effective.

President Sarkozy’s rapprochement with NATO coincided with a strategic convergence between Paris and Washington on key issues. Paris emerged as the Atlantic community’s toughest opponent of Iran’s nuclear program. Despite Sarkozy’s recent announcement of France’s accelerated departure from Afghanistan, under his leadership, France ‘surged’ troops to Afghanistan in 2008 to coincide with the United States’ new counterinsurgency strategy. France has also served as an effective leader in crisis management, from brokering a flawed but important cease-fire in the Russia-Georgia war in 2008 to providing political leadership in the Eurozone crisis. Paris’ closer ties with the Alliance and Washington have made France a more effective partner and a more influential member of the Atlantic community.

France’s new president, François Hollande, will head to the NATO Chicago summit just two weeks after his victory at the polls. His approach will determine whether France remains aligned with Washington on major strategic issues such as Iran and Syria. Will France undermine Alliance cohesion in Afghanistan by removing French troops in 2012 as President Hollande has promised, or will it keep its commitments to NATO to remain through 2014? And will he keep France united with its NATO allies on missile defense against Iran?

These are critical issues for the future of France and the place it occupies within the Atlantic Alliance. For Europe to remain an effective partner of the United States, it needs a strong, strategically savvy, and ambitious France, especially because of the unique contribution France is able to make in the Middle East and Africa, whether acting within NATO or alone. Europe and the Atlantic community need Paris to sustain its current Atlanticist commitments, regardless of which personality and party govern France throughout the coming decade.

R. Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and a board director of the Atlantic Council. Damon Wilson is executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. Jeff Lightfoot is deputy director of the Council’s International Security Program. This piece is adapted from the Atlantic Council publication “Anchoring the Alliance.”

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