France is rethinking its `independent' defense posture. New consensus raises hopes for European cooperation on defense
France's defense plans are being revolutionized. Instead of Gen. Charles de Gaulle's ``independent'' policy, which reserved French forces for the defense of French national territory, France now proposes to help guarantee West Germany's defense.Skip to next paragraph
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In recent weeks, all of France's political parties except the Communists have announced support for a plan that would throw French forces into the fray at the beginning of a European conflict. President Franois Mitterrand and West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl discussed the issue briefly at a meeting last week and are scheduled to explore it further at a special summit in August.
The change in thinking brings France closer to the NATO alliance. It also raises new possibilities for European cooperation on defense, including the possibility that France would extend its nuclear umbrella to West Germany.
``A new national consensus is being created,'' says Dominique Moisi, director of the French Institute for International Affairs. ``Many of the old ambiguities about our relationship with Germany and our defense are being reduced.''
General de Gaulle's ``fortress France'' strategy long had looked unworkable. During the 1970s, then-President Val'ery Giscard d'Estaing began suggesting that French independence would have little substance if West Germany were overrun.
During the early 1980s, President Mitterrand edged closer to a more European concept of defense, activating the security clause in the 1963 Franco-German friendship treaty and creating the rapid action force, which could intervene quickly in Germany.
Still, de Gaulle's legacy proved difficult to overcome. Mr. Giscard d'Estaing's Gaullist allies, upon whom he was dependent for a parliamentary majority, ruled out any strategic shift. And Mitterrand did not move too fast out of fear of undermining the national consensus on defense.
Now the old consensus has shifted. In late June, the Gaullists abandoned their archaic doctrine. In early July, the Socialists joined them, even declaring that the French nuclear force should have a role in West Germany's defense.
A follow-up poll in the French daily Le Monde showed that a majority of the public agreed with this position.
Why the change in attitude?
The French fear West German pacifism and neutralism. In the French view, the furor two years ago over the installation of United States Pershing missiles in West Germany underlines the tenuous nature of Germany's Western connection. By offering a stronger military commitment, the French hope to strengthen that connection.
For different reasons, this argument appeals both to right- and left-wingers. Pierre Lellouche, a colleague of Mr. Moisi's at the French Institute of International Relations, argues in a new book that France must contribute more to Western defense through West Germany because of reports of growing Soviet military strength. He says a weak, divided Germany under constant Soviet pressure also exposes France to Soviet pressure.