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France at odds with U.S. over command of NATO French want a European to lead southern unit

THE BALTIMORE SUN

PARIS -- Prospects that France will rejoin NATO's military command structure have been seriously set back, French officials say, by Washington's refusal to consider putting a European officer in charge of the alliance's southern command, which includes the U.S. 6th Fleet.

"Either the Americans give in or we don't go in," a high-ranking Defense Ministry official said, referring to the unified command structure from which Charles de Gaulle withdrew in 1966 in protest against U.S. domination.

President Jacques Chirac softened that position a year ago, saying France would return to full military participation if the alliance were modified to reflect greater European military self-reliance in the post-Cold War era.

Chirac's pledge was warmly welcomed at the time by the United States, even though the three-decade estrangement has been as much symbolic as practical. France has continued to be a partner in the alliance and has contributed a large share of the NATO force now deployed in Bosnia.

Chirac did not challenge the right of the United States to name NATO's military chief in Europe, currently Gen. George A. Joulwan, or its naval commander for the Atlantic, based in Norfolk, Va.

But in August, diplomats from other European countries say, France surprised its allies by insisting on European control of the two main NATO ground commands that will be left on the continent when the alliance accepts new members from Eastern and Central Europe after next year.

Of these two commands, one, Allied Forces Southern Europe in Naples, has always been under the command of a U.S. admiral. At a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Norway last month, Defense Secretary William J. Perry said the United States believed that it was "essential" that this arrangement continue.

French Defense Minister Charles Millon said that France would "remain in its current position" in the alliance -- in politically, but not militarily except in special cases such as the peacekeeping force in Bosnia -- unless the United States changed its mind about the Naples command.

U.S. and French officials said that neither side was likely to yield on the issue before the presidential election in the United States.

Pub Date: 10/13/96

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