PARIS (Reuters) -- NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer has welcomed France's announcement that it plans to return to the integrated military command of the alliance after an absence of more than 40 years.
"Its full participation in all the civil and military decision-making and planning processes cannot but strengthen the alliance further," de Hoop Scheffer said in a statement. "I shall make sure that all steps are taken to ensure implementation of the French decision."
Earlier, President Nicolas Sarkozy said France would return to the military command structure it left under predecessor Charles de Gaulle in a row about U.S. influence over Europe.
Sarkozy told a defense conference that France needed to return to the heart of NATO to make its voice heard.
"The time has come to put an end to this situation. It is in the interest of France and in the interest of Europe," Sarkozy said. "We have stop deluding ourselves that by burying our heads in the sand, we are capable of protecting anything."
France is already NATO's fourth-largest contributor of troops, and officials have said its self-imposed exile from the integrated command was hindering its ability to influence decision-making within the 26-member military bloc.
The announcement will make little difference on the ground in missions such as Afghanistan, where France has 2,800 troops, but it is symbolically significant and will firmly tie European defense ambitions to the Atlantic alliance.
Opinion polls show a majority of voters support the move, but many of Sarkozy's political opponents have criticized it, saying it would limit France's freedom on the international stage.
Many influential conservatives have also distanced themselves from any rapprochement with NATO, seeing it as a betrayal of de Gaulle's vision of an independent France.
France was a founding member of NATO but de Gaulle argued that Paris did not want to be dragged into a war that was not of its own choosing. France left the command structure in 1966. The decision, taken in the midst of the Cold War, was the culmination of years of Franco-American rivalry over control of the alliance and of nuclear weapons.
While it is returning to the military command, Sarkozy said Paris would keep its nuclear capabilities independent and officials said France did not plan to join the organisation's nuclear planning committee.
France's nuclear force, developed by French engineers, has support across the political spectrum. Western Europe's other nuclear power, Britain, bought its technology from the United States.
"We will maintain our independent nuclear deterrent," said Sarkozy. "We can have a debate on deterrents, we should have a debate on disarmament, but we will not share decision-making over our nuclear force," he added.
Although Sarkozy could authorize the NATO reintegration without consulting parliament, he has called a confidence vote over the issue next week to give added legitimacy to his decision. He is expected to win the vote easily.
Sarkozy, who is due to host a 60th anniversary NATO summit in April, made a full return to the alliance conditional on creating a greater role for Europe within the organization. He said this demand had been met.