France Stakes Own Turf in NATO Even as It Acts With US in Bosnia

AFTER rejoining NATO's military wing this month, France is pushing to turn an apparent diplomatic defeat into a victory.

France's return - after a 30-year absence - amounted to a tacit acknowledgment that France needed the US-led alliance to play a key role in European security. But the move also marks a French bid to rework how NATO operates. In particular, France is pushing for a stronger European and French hand in the military organization.

France rejoined just as 60,000 troops embark on NATO's biggest mission ever, to implement a Bosnia peace. For French troops on the ground, working in NATO makes their jobs easier.

"We've just exchanged our UN peacekeeper hats for our military ones," says Capt. Frederic Solano, a spokesman for French forces based in Sarajevo, Bosnia's capital. "But what we have now is a timetable for military objectives and the resources from NATO to support it."

When French President Charles de Gaulle broke with NATO's military wing in 1966, he did so at a time of national prosperity, backed by a new nuclear force he was eager to keep under national control.

Now, President Jacques Chirac faces a two-year marathon to bring France's $64 billion budget deficit in check, according to European Union standards, at a time when the nation's economy seems about to slide back into recession.

France has maintained a high military profile in the world, including setting off the fifth of six controversial nuclear tests Wednesday. But in his annual Christmas message, Mr. Chirac told the nation's armed forces to expect "profound restructuring" in the new year, likely to include deep budget cuts and consolidation of the nation's armaments industry.

NATO's resources allow France to continue to play a key role in regional conflicts without draining the nation's treasury. "The new French president clearly wants to engage France more in the Atlantic alliance," says an American diplomat.

French officials played down the relation between the conclusion of the US-brokered Dayton accords on Nov. 21 and their Dec. 5 decision to take a greater role in NATO. The move simply confirms an ongoing pattern of cooperation with the 16-member alliance.

"This decision didn't just pop out of a hat," says a French Defense ministry official. "We've participated in all NATO decisions that relate to the use of force in ex-Yugoslavia since 1992. Now, we'll just be involved in a broader range of subjects."

France will not participate in all aspects of NATO's military command, including discussions on nuclear matters. While French leaders accept the current chain of command in Bosnia, directed by Navy US Adm. Leighton Smith, they say European command must not be ruled out in the future.

"For France, it's not a question, as in the 1950s, of rejoining a chain of command totally controlled by the United States," said French Defense Minister Charles Millon in the daily Figaro this week. "What Bosnia has shown is that the reform of NATO, sought in 1966 by General de Gaulle, is indispensable."

"It is clear that an operation in Haiti should rest on the American pillar, but in the case of an operation in Bosnia, it's the European pillar that should dominate," Mr. Millon said.

Not Europe's hour

When war in the former Yugoslavia broke out in 1991, Europeans insisted on managing the conflict themselves. "This is Europe's hour," said Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos. This view suited the Bush administration and especially then-Joint Chiefs of Staff head Colin Powell, who viewed the Balkans conflict as beyond NATO's zone of activity and a no-win proposition for American ground troops.

But as the conflict dragged on, Europeans stepped up calls for the United States to "assume its responsibilities" in the peacekeeping operations in Bosnia.

Deep disagreements persisted, however, over how to resolve the crisis. France and Britain opposed US calls to lift the arms embargo and use NATO airpower, citing threats to their peacekeepers on the ground.

What de Gaulle would do

While noting the importance of American resolve in concluding the Bosnia peace accords, French leaders emphasized the importance of their nation's past role in bringing about the peace and its future role in implementing it.

French commander of UN forces in Sarajevo, Gen. Jean-Rene Bachelet, told journalists that the Dayton accord gave Bosnian Serbs the choice of a suitcase or a coffin. If General de Gaulle had been at Dayton, he would have walked out and slammed the door, he said.

"I refuse to see my soldiers condemned to assist in a Serb exodus," he said. "I refuse to see nonapplication of the accord blamed on the French. France will be on the front line."

The general was quickly recalled to Paris after the remarks were reported in the French press, but the substance of his criticism have not not been disavowed.

Experience counts

This week, Bosnian Serbs asked US Admiral Smith to put off a February deadline for handing over Serb-controlled districts around Sarajevo to the Bosnian government until the fall. NATO rejected the request.

French forces now have the most perilous assignments in Bosnia, including Sarajevo, Mostar, and Gorazde. Here French experience in regional conflicts will be telling, officials say; while Americans plan every move, the French have proved they can be more "flexible" on the ground.

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