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Readers Blog: Art's Milwaukee

France Rejoins NATO

France, after following a course separate from NATO for more than four decades, is returning to the fold. This significant shift is due to the insight and initiative of French President Nicolas Sarkozy, along with the long-term tolerance and patience by alliance partners, including the United States.

            Breaking away from NATO was a central element in the comprehensive strategy of President Charles de Gaulle. The revered leader of the Free French during World War II was returned to national leadership in the late 1950s in a time of grave crisis.

            Defeat in 1954 in a very costly colonial war in Indochina, another continuing enervating war in Algeria, and the revolving door character of post-war governments all contributed to the perception that France was a weak partner in the Atlantic area alliance. The parliament was characterized by intense ideological divisions, lending an unstable character to governing coalitions. Stunning military defeat and occupation by Nazi Germany reinforced continuing national insecurity.

            After returning to power, Gen. de Gaulle skillfully employed a three-pronged strategy involving image, institutions and foreign policy. His remarkable career and personality permitted him to appeal simultaneously to French traditions of monarchism, patriotism and democracy. He was aloof and often imperious, yet resorted to popular referenda.

            De Gaulle established the Fifth Republic, with a new constitution granting exceptional power to the chief executive. He rebuilt French self-confidence through emphasis on the force de frappe, the independent national nuclear deterrent, plus distinctive diplomacy. The nuclear force became a potent symbol of national pride and independence. The French also embraced nuclear power stations, and public opinion polls show strong continuing support for this sort of utility.

            Except for Britain, a very special partner, the United States has opposed development of nuclear weapons by other nations. President John F. Kennedy and his associates were far more aggressive than the predecessor Eisenhower administration in pushing to restrict such development. The resulting continuing clash between Kennedy and de Gaulle made for fascinating political theatre, based on far more profound policy differences than any which have separated the two nations since.

            In 1963, France signed a separate bi-national treaty with the Federal Republic of Germany. Devastating military defeat by Prussia in 1871 as well as Germany in 1940 added a special poignancy to this agreement. There were also efforts to reach accommodation with the Soviet Union, again outside the NATO framework. To JFK’s credit, he acknowledged the general value of the Franco-German treaty, though privately he expressed particular irritation with his media as well as diplomatic rival in Paris.

            The Johnson Administration’s growing preoccupation with the Vietnam War arguably relieved some transatlantic tensions, but did not remove fundamental policy disagreements. In 1966, France declared an end to participation in the integrated military command, while remaining formally within NATO. Alliance headquarters was moved from Paris to Brussels.

            This background highlights the profound nature of the Sarkozy shift. In addition to rejoining NATO, Paris has declared that people suffering ill health due to radiation from nuclear tests will be compensated. In the past, the government has been reluctant even to acknowledge that the explosions carried significant health risks.

            Unfortunately the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, plus the global financial crisis, have overshadowed this very good NATO news. President Barack Obama’s trip to Europe early next month provides an opportune time to thank President Sarkozy publicly, with emphasis.

Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College in Wisconsin and author of ‘After the Cold War’ (NYU Press and Palgrave/Macmillan). He can be reached at

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