France in the Fold

Feb. 1, 2012

Converging strategic goals prompted France in 2009 to end 43 years of self-imposed exile from NATO’s military command structure, restoring political influence in the Alliance France believed it had lost. Only two years after that decision, France took a lead role in NATO’s Libya air campaign, expanding on its significant contributions to NATO operations in Afghanistan.

“We send our soldiers on the terrain but we don’t participate in the committee where their objectives are decided,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy said in 2009, explaining the state of France’s relationship to NATO. “Our strategy cannot remain stuck in the past when the conditions of our security have changed radically,” he said. The time had come, he asserted, “to end this situation,” declaring France’s full reintegration a month before NATO’s 60th anniversary.

A French Rafale (l) and Mirage 2000 over Afghanistan. (French Air Force photo)

President Obama welcomed France’s decision to allow its military to once again operate with allies under a single, unified chain of command. Praising the move in March 2009, he said, “France is a founding member of NATO and has been a strong contributor to NATO missions throughout the Alliance’s history. France’s full participation in the NATO military command structure will further contribute to a stronger Alliance and a stronger Europe.”

“The NATO Alliance has been the cornerstone of trans-Atlantic security for the past 60 years. … It is through close cooperation with allies and partners that we can overcome our most difficult challenges,” Obama said.

France wasted little time reasserting its influence in NATO command structures. “For the first time since 1949, NATO was put at the service of a coalition led by two determined European countries, France and Great Britain,” Sarkozy said five months into allied operations over Libya.

Spurred by France and Britain, the United Nations authorized military force to shield Libyan civilians against attack by military forces loyal to Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Within two days, on March 19, France (under Operation Harmattan) took a lead role alongside Britain and the US. Even before NATO assumed the entire mission’s leadership, France and Britain, working in conjunction with US forces under Operation Odyssey Dawn, were orchestrating naval operations and air strikes in Libya. NATO assumed overall command of the mission 12 days later.

Though absent from the command structure, France had never left the Alliance outright. The nation was one of the largest contributors of combat troops to NATO operations in Afghanistan and Kosovo—although they were until 2009 held separate from the overall allied chain of command. Today, roughly 3,800 French forces are deployed under NATO in Southwest Asia—the majority in combat and direct support roles.


From NATO’s founding as a counter to Soviet expansionism in 1949, France played a key role in the Alliance, hosting, among other things, NATO’s highest headquarters.

However, because of the prominence of the US and Britain—which shared a special relationship—in NATO, France came to believe its sovereignty was being threatened by the very Alliance it helped to create.

Wary of losing sway, then-President Charles de Gaulle sought to match the dominating influence of the US and Britain by proposing a new command structure with the US, UK, and France exercising co-equal leadership within the Alliance. When the US and Britain rejected this scheme, de Gaulle began distancing France from the Alliance.

In 2008, a US Navy F/A-18 (l) and a French Rafale participate in a joint exercise, the first time the French air arm was integrated with an American carrier air group for several days of operations. (French Navy photo)

At about the same time, France had begun asserting some strategic autonomy by developing its own, independent nuclear deterrent forces. This path culminated in a test of the first French nuclear weapon in 1960.

For France, the last straw came with the US abandonment of the nuclear doctrine of mutually assured destruction in favor of staged, conventional escalation. An American “graduated response” would mean fighting the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact troops conventionally on European soil, resorting to nuclear weapons in Europe if the Soviets couldn’t be stopped any other way. De Gaulle strenuously objected to this approach, preferring to threaten immediate nuclear response to invasion rather than risk a ground war at France’s doorstep.

In 1966, de Gaulle shocked US and allied leaders by severing French forces from multinational command and walking out of allied defense and nuclear planning. France remained in the Alliance but on her own political terms.

With France now absent from NATO military command functions, de Gaulle demanded the immediate departure of allied forces from French soil. NATO’s military headquarters outside Paris relocated to Mons, Belgium—where it remains today. The US was also forced to vacate nuclear forces from air bases throughout France.

The French ambassador to the US at the time, Charles Lucet, framed the French stance: “We want to remain your friend and your ally within the Atlantic Alliance.” Though de Gaulle resisted being pulled into a conflict between titans against France’s will, Lucet acknowledged that NATO remained “indispensable for the balance and for the peace of the world.” Lucet expressed France’s contention, however, that the Soviet military threat to Europe was greatly diminished. “If the threat were to be revived,” he said, “you know which side we would be on.”

Two months before allied operations drew to a close in Libya, Sarkozy stated unequivocally that France’s lead role there vindicated his decision to rejoin NATO’s unified command.

At the political level, France pushed NATO to take a much deeper look at Libyan involvement than it otherwise may have done. While US assets were key to the speed of success, the strategic objectives in Libya were much more in line with France’s goals.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy (l) met with NATO Secretary-General Anders Rasmussen (r) in September. France was instrumental in getting NATO forces involved in the Libyan conflict. (AP photo by Thibault Camus)

“What’s happening in northern Africa is very closely tied to French national interests and probably a bit further away from American national interests,” said French Air Force Col. Eric Mongnot, head of France’s delegation to NATO Allied Command Transformation, in Norfolk, Va.

“We knew that this had an impact on European soil, security, and stability. … We had a political goal, we had the military means to do it, and we launched the operation,” he said.

“We were politically more influential; … that’s the main thing that we’ve gained going back into the structure,” he added.

For France and the US, the defining purpose of the Alliance remains collective defense from external attack. Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty guarantees that any armed attack against a member is considered an attack on the Alliance as a whole.

“If an Article 5 [event] were to emerge, then there’s no question—all our forces would be engaged into that if needed,” said Mongnot.

Following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in history. “In a spirit of solidarity and responsibility,” then-President of France Jacques Chirac threw his country’s full support behind the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Three months later, 5,000 French troops deployed to Southwest Asia, second only to Britain among allied contributors. Early on, naval aircraft from the carrier Charles de Gaulle were flying 10 percent of allied air cover and reconnaissance.

A Rafale carrying GBU-12s and a Damocles targeting pod during Operation Harmattan—the French designation for the NATO military intervention in Libya. (French Air Force photo)

“For Afghanistan, we were one of the first countries to provide fighters,” noted French Lt. Col. Jean-Patrick Borja, former airlift pilot and current exercise assessment chief at NATO-Allied Command Transformation. French personnel helped open the Manas Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan in December 2001. “We were there with the Americans,” supplying fighters, KC-135 tankers, and airlift support less than six months after the attacks, Borja said. “I think this is quite significant because after that, … everybody followed up, but France was the first.”

Even before rejoining NATO’s planning and chain of command, “we still showed that we were a very reliable ally to the US,” Borja said.

During Operation Anaconda in March 2002, French fighter aircraft, flying from the carrier de Gaulle and land based at Manas, carried out the first non-US air strikes against targets in Afghanistan.

Early quibbles over the proximity of air strikes to civil zones aside, France, unlike many allies, placed no restrictive caveats on its military contribution.

“We just had the NATO rules, and that’s it—the same as the Americans,” said French Lt. Col. Vincent Fournier, a former Mirage pilot, now a capability and requirements officer at NATO ACT.

Initially outside NATO planning, French forces wrestled with equipment incompatibility—notably targeting pods—which hindered coordination with allied combat controllers. With some improvisation, “we did overcome that … and it worked in the end,” said Fournier.

Bitter political disagreement over the invasion of Iraq in 2003 poisoned public discourse between France and the US, but had little effect on French commitment in Afghanistan. “Like the US, the spirit is, ‘If we go to war, then we go to war,’ ” said Borja. “I don’t think you’ll find that spirit in many countries, … even in Europe.”

Reconverging Interests

French Air Force Commandant (Maj.) Yann Malard was an exchange pilot posted with USAF in Kandahar, Afghanistan. (French Air Force photo)

France’s relationship with allies throughout the Cold War and beyond has been defined by Paris’ staunch assertion of national sovereignty and independence. This has earned France a reputation as difficult to work with.

Primarily, though, the decision to rejoin NATO command acknowledged converging interests with the organization in the wake of the Cold War. NATO operations in Kosovo and Afghanistan highlighted the strategic merge.

“The first thing that we very often hear is that France has rejoined NATO, and that’s a mistake, … but very often we hear that even among our NATO allies,” Mongnot said. “We never left the NATO exercises, we have never left NATO operations—we have always been among the first contributors, always in the first five.”

Reintegration was largely driven by the same reason France originally split with NATO’s command: desire for equal voice in strategy.

“As far as we’re concerned, … we keep our sovereignty. The French military assets are still under national command and that hasn’t changed,” explained Mongnot. “The main thing is that we didn’t want” to have military orders imposed when “we hadn’t taken part in the deliberation. Now we are fully back in.”

The move was also an unequivocal message of commitment to NATO as the foundational defense structure in Europe. The French leadership was eager to vindicate the nation’s allegiance to the Alliance after long being criticized as promoting humanitarian and security operations led by the European Union separate from and at the expense of NATO defense posture.

“We clearly know that for the defense of Europe, the first toolbox is NATO. We’re not expecting the European Union to [defend] against a high-intensity attack,” stressed Mongnot. “Being back in NATO demonstrates that we are fully committed to making NATO an operational and efficient military tool,” he added.

A Rafale is catapulted off the deck of the carrier Charles de Gaulle during Operation Harmattan. (French Navy photo)

France is NATO’s fourth largest financial contributor and one of only four European members to spend the baseline two percent of GDP on defense. Like the US, France feels the burden of meeting its military obligations.

“France, just like any other nation, is facing a financial crisis,” explained Mongnot. Sharing the burden along with the US is good; “however, we are only one nation,” he added, echoing the words of former Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Gates, in a parting shot delivered at his last NATO meeting, warned that if the defense spending of most European allies continues to free-fall, “future US political leaders … may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”

While neither France nor the US can compel allies that are unwilling or unable to contribute, “as far as France is concerned, NATO should be and should remain … the most efficient and capable military organization in the world,” stated Mongnot.

He explained that some within the Alliance are pushing NATO to adopt a so-called “comprehensive approach” encompassing humanitarian and reconstruction-type missions. “If it’s done at the expense of military equipment, military training, or military capability,” this approach “reduces the credibility and conventional deterrence of NATO,” stressed Mongnot. “It is good to have a high level of ambition, high expectations, but sometimes you have to be realistic.”

While NATO remains an “important pillar” of the US-French strategic relationship, he noted that “it is not the only one.” The US and French militaries “have a bilateral relationship that is a lot stronger than the one we have through NATO,” said Mongnot. NATO is an essential fixture of trans-Atlantic security, but “it’s just one of the different ways we have to talk to each other.”