France ends its long absence from gathering of NATO defense ministers


BRUSSELS, Belgium -- When NATO defense ministers gather Wednesday in Seville, Spain, for their annual informal meeting, there will be a new face at the table -- that of French Defense Minister Francois Leotard.

It is not that Mr. Leotard himself is new to the job. He has held his post since the French right returned to power in parliamentary elections 18 months ago.

What is new is that a French defense minister will be in Seville at all.

Indeed, Mr. Leotard's participation in the three-day gathering marks the first time France has attended such a meeting since the late President Charles de Gaulle pulled his nation out of the military side of the 16-member North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 1966 amid accusations that the alliance was little more than a tool for U.S. domination of Europe.

The decision to send Mr. Leotard to Seville represents the latest in a series of gradual, low-key French steps back toward the NATO fold rather than any sudden, dramatic U-turn after 28 years.

Few predict that the move signals any swift full French reintegration into NATO's military structure.

That would surely be seen as compromising the unfettered independence of the French military deterrent -- a strict political taboo in Paris.

Still, both at NATO headquarters in Brussels and in Paris, Mr. Leotard's presence is considered significant.

"It means something," said Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institution of International Relations in Paris.

"It means the French are aware that their previous policy was leading them to self-exclusion, that if they wanted to have some influence . . . they had to be present."

Added a senior NATO official in Brussels: "This is a step in the right direction. It shows a new attitude on the part of France."

It is also likely that Mr. Leotard's presence will be more than merely symbolic.

"He's not just going to Seville to listen, he's going to take the lead in discussions about Bosnia-Herzegovina [where France has the single largest contingent of U.N. peacekeepers] and on security concerns in the Mediterranean," the senior NATO official said. "He'll be trying to say that Algeria is a security concern for all of Europe."

Both for NATO and for France, this increasingly active French role is important.

For the alliance, participation not only would add the clout of what by 1997 will be Western Europe's largest national military force. It would also boost NATO's profile in the politically volatile Mediterranean and provide it with valuable French experience in the field of peacekeeping -- a task seen as central to the alliance's future.

For France, closer cooperation with NATO is a way to avoid an isolation that had threatened to exclude the country in the new post-Cold War environment.

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