France quit the NATO command and ordered the organisation to close its headquarters in France after President Charles De Gaulle said Paris did not want to be dragged further into the Cold War.
The decision, taken at the height of east-west tensions, was the culmination of years of Franco-American rivalry over control of the alliance and of nuclear weapons.
But the world order has changed over the course of four decades, and it is now time for France to return to the inner sanctum of decision-making within NATO, according to Nicolas Sarkozy.
In fact, France has been playing an increasingly important role in NATO for several years, with French generals commanding missions in Kosovo, Bosnia and Afghanistan since 1995.
France is already the fourth biggest contributor to NATO and, for the Sarkozy camp, its reintegration into the Alliance’s military command would simply end what they describe as a hypocritical situation.
Since the end of the Cold War, there have been efforts by a number of French leaders to strengthen ties with NATO. A bid by President Mitterand in 1997 failed over the terms of re-entry.
Critics both in the opposition and within Sarkozy’s own UMP fear a full return to NATO will mean Paris will lose its independence and its ability to act as a counterweight to the US.
They see the move as proof of Sarkozy’s ambition to move closer to its Atlantic allies and away from Europe. Sarkozy has come under fire from critics who oppose what they see as his courtship of the US, which started with his first visit there in 2007.
Political analyst Didier Billion said: “I think it is completely unrealistic to consider that we can influence NATO’s course, even if we’re reintegrated into the central command. Because only the naive believe … that NATO is an organisation where things are actually discussed. There are no discussions: the Americans decide.”
Critics also fear France’s reintegration into the NATO command could undermine efforts to build what is still a fledgling European defence force.
They argue that France cannot both get on the NATO train and board the EU express.
Sarkozy, however, says France’s reintegration will boost both its position on the global scene and accelerate the European defence project.