France hosts Nato talks laden with symbolism and tension

By Peter Spiegel in Nice and John Thornhill in Paris

Financial Times

Published: February 14 2005

It has been almost 40 years since French president Charles de Gaulle kicked Nato out of its Paris headquarters and withdrew his country from the security alliance's military command structure.

But today, for the first time since 1967, defence ministers from every Nato country will gather on French soil, in the Mediterranean resort of Nice, for their annual informal meeting - an occurrence replete with such symbolism that it has almost overshadowed the difficult policy issues that will be discussed by the fractured alliance.

For the French defence minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, the symbolism is entirely intentional. In a meeting last week with foreign media she emphasised the prominent role of French troops in Nato missions to Afghanistan and the Balkans, where Paris has deployed 4,000 troops - the second largest contingent now operating under Nato command.

France's efforts to improve the EU's military capabilities, she said, would complement, rather than threaten, Nato. "Europe's progress in defence will not be in competition or contradiction with Nato," she said. "The EU is the only international actor with the complete range of civil, police and military tools to manage crises."

Senior French officials say that, along with Afghanistan and Kosovo, public relations will be at the top of their Nice agenda. One official said the effort was aimed at French public opinion which, since the dismissal by Mr de Gaulle, had always looked at the transatlantic alliance with suspicion.

"We want to show we have a relationship with Nato that is decomplexée (more uninhibited)," said the official. "It is a way of trying to change the public view."

But this effort will be fraught with difficulties. Among the hottest issues will be the agenda being brought to Nice by Donald Rumsfeld, the US defence secretary, who is seeking a more active Nato role in Iraq.

Backed by Jaap de Hooop Scheffer, the alliance's secretary-general, Mr Rumsfeld is pushing for every member to participate in a training mission approved late last year, either by sending troops to Baghdad, training Iraqi officers outside the country, or donating to a trust fund to finance the mission.

"Given that these elections were successful and were kind of in a new phase, we think there's going to be an even greater interest in participating in this effort," said a Pentagon official. "It's a very important effort."

But Paris is unlikely to play along. French officials say any financial commitment will be made on a bilateral basis. France's offer to help set up an Iraqi Grandarmerie, with a training site in Qatar, will similarly be outside Nato's auspices.

The stickiest issue, however, is likely to be France's refusal to allow its senior officers assigned to Nato to participate in the Iraq mission.

US officials, including General James Jones, the supreme allied commander, have expressed anger at the move, arguing that, legally, any officer assigned to Nato headquarters is no longer part of the national chain of command.

The issue is doubly sensitive since Nato military leaders have only recently acceded to repeated French requests to let its officers fill alliance "billets" - senior military posts - inside its headquarters command.

"This is not about countries' individual forces or units participating, but the actual headquarters staff," said the Pentagon official. "So the general officer who may have some responsibility for training in this area is told you can't go, even though you're part of the headquarters staff, which has been a big problem for General Jones to contend with. That hasn't happened before." Additional reporting by Daniel Dombey in Brussels.