Prague, 22 November 1996 (RFE/RL) - The French government seems to have given the first substantial public sign of a softening of its stance in a months-long confrontation with the United States over future respective European and American military responsibilities within NATO's integrated military command.
The often bitter dispute between the two Alliance members is important because, unless resolved quickly, it could hold up a major overhaul of NATO's military structure and perhaps even delay the planned early admission of several Central European nations.
The apparent signal of a new French conciliatory attitude came yesterday at a meeting of the North Atlantic Assembly in Versailles, near Paris. Addressing parliamentarians from the Alliance's 16 member states, French Defense Minister Charles Millon said that the kind of command reforms France has been seeking will "necessarily take time." He spoke of recent discussions on the issue with "our American friends." What was important, Millon stressed, was that the two nations reach agreement in principle on the reforms NATO should undertake.
"The modalities of implementation and the timetable for them can be set afterwards," he concluded.
Translated into plain language, Millon's remarks suggest that France will no longer demand that the United States immediately hand over NATO's critical southern command to a European, as it has insisted for most of this year. That command, based in Naples, includes the U.S. Sixth Fleet and the former Yugoslavia, and is vital to controlling the Mediterranean and wielding military influence in the Middle East.
In the past, NATO's southern region has always had a U.S. commander. But France has been demanding that, as a part of the promised "Europeanization" of NATO's military structure, the command now be rotated between a European -- probably initially French -- and an a American.
Washington has flatly and repeatedly turned down the proposal. When Paris went public with the dispute two months ago, a high U.S. official was quoted as saying: "If the French think we will give in on this, they're crazy." The quarrel escalated so quickly that it soon led to an exchange of letters between Presidents Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac.
A greater role for Europe in NATO's military structure was the price independence-minded France demanded a year ago when it committed itself to rejoining NATO's integrated command after nearly three decades of being the Alliance's odd-man-out. At the time, NATO was reorganizing itself to deal with crisis management and peacekeeping in Bosnia. It was obviously important for France, with a large troop contingent in Bosnia, to take part in military discussions at NATO's Brussels' headquarters while playing a substantial role in the Alliance's actions on the ground. But full French re-integration into a reformed military command, Paris insisted, depended on adequate "Europeanization."
The Alliance, traditionally led by the United States, began an effort 18 months ago to recognize Europe's greater role by making it possible for purely European operations to use NATO military assets provided by Washington. More recently, it decided to give a European deputy supreme allied commander (his superior is an American) responsibility for preparing possible "Europe-only" military missions. But those steps were not enough to bring the French fully back. They continued to insist that the southern command be rotated.
As recently as three days ago, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman underlined that all NATO decisions had to be unanimous. Without actually threatening in so many words to block NATO expansion if France did not get its way, the spokesman pointedly noted that enlargement "also requires (full) agreement." Matters between the United States and France, traditional trans-Atlantic adversaries as well as allies, seemed once again to be at an impasse.
Then the French changed their tune. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Alain Juppe told NATO parliamentarians he was "convinced" the dispute could be resolved. Yesterday, Millon went even further by suggesting an agreement in principle was all that was necessary now --implementation could wait for later. And today in Brussels France took part in the second day of talks among NATO chiefs of staff seeking a solution to the problem.
In telephone interviews, NATO officials in Brussels told our correspondent that the military talks could not be expected to resolve what they say has obviously become "a political problem." But the officials noted that "compromise proposals" are now circulating among various national missions. After meeting with high French officials yesterday, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana said he too was confident "a consensus solution" would be found. In short, the latest Franco-American impasse appears to have been broken -- and this time by the French.