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France: Still The 'Odd Man Out' At NATO

Prague, 3 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - After feuding in private over the past week, the two political adversaries who share executive power in France have together publicly reaffirmed Paris' decision not to rejoin NATO's integrated military command for the time being. That leaves France where it has been for the past three decades - "odd man out" in the Atlantic Alliance.

In a joint statement issued yesterday, conservative President Jacques Chirac and socialist Premier Lionel Jospin declared that conditions were not yet ripe for France to return to full membership in the Alliance. In 1966, President Charles de Gaulle forced NATO to move its headquarters from Paris to Brussels and quit its integrated command in protest over what he alleged was U.S. domination of the Alliance.

The Chirac-Jospin statement also restated France's conviction that five Central European countries were qualified to join NATO immediately, not just the three accepted by the U.S. Paris wants Romania and Slovenia included as well as Washington's choice of only the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.

But French officials indicated that Paris would not block the selection of the three Central European nations at next week's NATO summit in Madrid (July 7-8). U.S. officials confirmed last night that France had conveyed its new position to Washington independently of yesterday's joint statement. Since NATO decisions are always taken by consensus, that means in effect that the U.S. view will almost certainly prevail at Madrid

Nevertheless, the Chirac-Jospin declaration set the stage for a possible Franco-American conflict at the summit. The meeting is due to announce which Eastern countries will be the first to be invited to begin accession talks with the heretofore purely Western Alliance. Informed diplomats (requesting anonymity) in Paris told our correspondent today that they believe Chirac could still openly clash with President Bill Clinton in Madrid --both on trans-Atlantic power-sharing within NATO and on the shape and size of the 16-nation Alliance's Eastward expansion.

The diplomats said that Chirac had been pressured to toughen his stance by Jospin and other high officials in the socialist-led Left government that took power in France a month ago today. They noted that, without consulting with Chirac first, the French Foreign Ministry last Friday (June 27) told journalists that the conditions for Paris rejoining NATO's integrated military structure had not been met. Foreign Ministry spokesman Jacques Rummelhardt also said it was up to Chirac, in the spokesman's phrase, "to evaluate for himself if it is advisable to go further" toward France's rapprochement with NATO.

Most commentators at the time interpreted Rummelhardt's remarks as a clear invasion by Jospin of Chirac's "special domain" of foreign and defense policy, which for 40 years has been the powerful French President's traditional prerogative. That has been true of two previous periods of what the French call "cohabitation" between Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and the conservative prime ministers who served under him in - Chirac himself from 1986-88 and Edouard Balladur from 1993-95. Now the same commentators suggest that Chirac, who called a snap election two months ago only to lose to the Left, has given in to Jospin's pressure for a tougher policy - stopping short, however, of vetoing the admission by NATO of only three Central European candidates.

It was Chirac himself who in late 1995, when there was a conservative government in power, initiated the French rapprochement with NATO. He did so by announcing that his defense minister would begin to attend NATO military council meetings for the first time in 31 years, an initial step toward rejoining the Alliance's military command. But there were no second steps taken because Chirac soon afterwards laid down conditions for France's re-entry that were unacceptable to the U.S., the Alliance's traditional leader.

The main French condition was that Washington agree to surrender control of NATO's southern military command to a European officer in order to give the Europeans more real power in the Alliance. The southern command, which includes the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, has always had an American officer in charge.

Not surprisingly, the Clinton Administration insisted repeatedly that it would never turn the command over to a European. Late last year, Chirac and Clinton exchanged strong letters on the subject, and since then both sides have remained adamant in their positions. Yesterday's Chirac-Jospin statement said France still "considers that the conditions it posed for re-examining its relation with NATO's military structures have not been met."

Whatever transpires between Chirac and Clinton in Madrid, it is now abundantly clear that Jospin has, for the second time in 16 days, pre-empted much of Chirac's special domain. It was Jospin and his Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine who forced the president's hand on NATO, just as they did on French policy toward European Monetary Union (EMU) at the European Union's Amsterdam summit two weeks ago. At the EU, Chirac was pressured by the socialists to demand more flexible criteria for joining the Union's planned single currency and to couple it with a new EU initiative on reducing unemployment. On both counts, Chirac gave in.

From a strictly French point of view, therefore, the socialists appear to have changed the usual cohabitation rules for power-sharing in less than a month's time. That is an extraordinary achievement, which many commentators and diplomats in Paris attribute to what they bluntly call Chirac's "weakness." In explanation, Chirac is said by some to be "deeply depressed" by the Left's electoral victory on May 1, by others to be "easily manipulated." Whatever the reason, the President has set two precedents that could come back to haunt him in the five long years he may have to live with a Left government.