Forty-three years after General Charles de Gaulle’s removal of France from NATO’s integrated command structure, Nicolas Sarkozy announced in an important speech that his country will reverse this symbolically important legacy of Gaullist heritage at the upcoming NATO summit.

Sarkozy’s move to strengthen ties with NATO has upset France’s elite, especially in the opposition parties.  The Communist Party is calling for a referendum on the matter, the Socialists and Centrists denounce France’s alignment with the United States, and even deputies from the traditional Gaullist wing of Sarkozy’s majority UMP argue that France is sacrificing its national independence by fully participating in NATO.As in many strategic debates in France, De Gaulle’s name is being used by both advocates and detractors. No doubt that when the issue of re-integration is put up for debate in the National Assembly on March 17, many deputies will argue passionately that De Gaulle is spinning in his modest grave at Colombey les Deux Eglises.

But does the opinion of Charles de Gaulle still matter in the formulation of French strategic policy in 2009? Does anyone really know what the General would have thought in a strategic environment that is radically different from the static bipolarity of Cold War Europe which he sought in vain to break?

Since De Gaulle’s departure as president in 1969, French leaders have largely respected the strategic legacy he left behind. The outlines of de Gaulle’s foreign policy are not contested by the major political parties and few dispute the mythology he left behind of national independence, strategic autonomy, grandeur, maintenance of rank in world affairs, and distance from the United States.

“All my life, I have had a certain idea of France,” wrote General De Gaulle in the opening lines of his Memoires de Guerre. In his years as leader of the French nation, he succeeded in making his vision of France the vision of France, replacing the humiliating and shameful legacy of 1940 with his own personal story of resistance, independence and grandeur. He so changed the national psyche that even forty years after his sudden resignation, French politicians walk on eggshells when adjusting strategic policy, even when necessity forces the change.

France’s outmoded and particular relationship with NATO has been a source of careful study and consideration since the end of the Cold War. However, France’s politicians have typically adjusted elements of strategic policy or major defense matters in secret or in small increments so as not to offend the Gaullist myth of non-alignment that retains public support across party lines. Even today, a key argument against France’s full participation in NATO is that it will undermine a certain French particularity by sullying the image of a non-aligned France separate and distinct from the U.S.-led alliance.

As Le Figaro reported yesterday, former president Francois Mitterrand – Socialist by party affiliation but very much the Gaullist on the world stage – sought to renovate France’s ties to NATO at the end of the Cold War. According to the article, Mitterrand even tentatively authorized highly secret discussions in 1990 concerning French reintegration into NATO in exchange for a dramatic renovation of the Alliance that would strengthen European influence within NATO.

His successor Jacques Chirac also attempted to renovate France’s relationship with NATO in 1995. Recognizing that the end of the Cold War changed Europe’s strategic environment and that NATO’s operations in the Balkans necessitated a renewed relationship with the Alliance, France and the US tried but ultimately failed to successfully negotiate reintegration into NATO.  Despite the failure of formal negotiations, France quietly continued its rapprochement with the Alliance by strengthening its cooperation to the point where today it participates in many of NATO’s committees and is the fourth largest force contributor to Alliance operations.

Sarkozy is now ready to take the final step of reintegrating France back into NATO, which is expected to be the headline deliverable at the April summit in Strasbourg/Kehl. To get there, Prime Minister Francois Fillon’s government will have to overcome a vote of confidence in the Parliament. Sarkozy’s unquestionable control over the majority UMP party will enable him to stifle dissent among the grumbling Gaullists in his own party and assures near certain victory in the vote.

Until then, however, the media, the elite, the Gaullists and the opposition will continue to complain that Sarkozy is betraying the heritage of General de Gaulle. While no one can say with certainty how de Gaulle would treat NATO in today’s radically different strategic context, his name will still be cheaply thrown around in the debate by those who oppose the President. Those who fear that Sarkozy’s reintegration into NATO marks the end of Gaullism in France should take heart and look at the larger picture. Gaullist strategic goals and foreign policy principles are still largely sacrosanct in the French political debate, as the controversy surrounding Sarkozy’s latest decision makes clear. Even in a very different world, Charles de Gaulle still casts a very long shadow over French grand strategy and will continue to do so in the years to come.

Jeff Lightfoot is assistant director of the International Security Program at the Atlantic Council.